By President John Garvey
The 1936 Berlin Olympics are best remembered for the catastrophic events beginning to unfold in Europe at the time. Hitler and the Nazi Party had come to power in 1933. By the time athletes began to arrive in late July 1936, German Jews had been stripped of their citizenship and were targets of systematic persecution. The Sachsenhausen concentration camp—where more than 200,000 Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, and POWs would be held and tens of thousands would die—was under construction just forty miles north of the Olympic stadium. Three years after the Berlin games Germany invaded Poland.
From these pages of world history Daniel James Brown retrieves the story of the University of Washington crew team, who won gold for the United States in Berlin in The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for God at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Brown does a good job explaining the physical and technical challenges of rowing and the great beauty of doing it well. In one continuous cycle the rower must drop the squared blade into the water, drive back his legs, lay back his torso, and pull in his arms. The rower releases the blade and feathers it by dropping his hands and quickly flicking his wrist. If he is too slow he may “catch a crab”: his blade will get stuck in the water, and sometimes take the rower with it. All of this has to be done quickly and with all of one’s strength. It is, James says, “as if eight men standing on a floating log that threatened to roll over whenever they moved had to hit eight golf balls at exactly the same moment, with exactly the same amount of force, directing the ball to exactly the same point on a green, and doing so over and over, every two or three seconds.” But when all eight oarsmen move in perfect unison, they produce something that is greater than the sum of their parts. The oarsmen become one thing propelling the boat smoothly through the water.
Brown sets the story in its historical context, interspersing his account of their training with passages on the history of rowing and national and international events like the Great Depression, the rise of the Third Reich, the Dust Bowl. And he tells the story of the boys, boat builders, and coaches who made the ’36 Olympic crew. Many of them came from working-class families. Joe Rantz, the seven seat of the Olympic eight and the protagonist of Brown’s narrative, was left motherless at age four, abandoned by his family at fifteen, and survived by taking any job he could find, including hewing rock while suspended from the side of a cliff at the Grand Coulee Dam. Rantz joined the crew to secure a part-time job on campus. After winning gold at the Olympics the nine boys in the boat melted back into history. They got married and had kids. A couple went on to coach.
The story of this crew might seem insignificant when set on the grand stage of history. You might even ask whether theirs was an accomplishment worth celebrating. The United States might have given a more powerful witness by boycotting the Berlin Olympics. Hitler and the Nazis were able to use the games as a massive propaganda campaign to convince the world that Germany meant peace.
But The Boys in the Boat shows that the grand events of history are animated by real people. Each of the boys had his own story—and so did each person “loved and loving and destined for cattle cars and death.” And despite great political, economic, and even natural forces, individuals are still capable of courage, self-sacrifice, and great triumphs.