More than a sports story


The Amer­i­cans have made a habit re­cently of pro­duc­ing epic non-fic­tion books with a sports thread.

Laura Hil­len­brand wrote Se­abis­cuit, the story of the cham­pion race­horse, in 2001. It was made into a film two years later.

In 2010, she wrote Un­bro­ken, the story of Louis Zam­perini’s in­cred­i­ble bat­tle for sur­vival dur­ing World War II. Zam­perini had rep­re­sented the United States as a dis­tance run­ner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Un­bro­ken has been made into a film, to be re­leased this year.

Zam­perini died this month, aged 97.

The lat­est Amer­i­can book wor­thy of world at­ten­tion is The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown.

It is the story of the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton row­ing eight, which won a gold medal for the United States in the 1936 Olympics.

What makes the row­ing story so com­pelling is the back­drop.

Nine boys (eight row­ers and a cox), mainly from im­pov­er­ished back­grounds around Seat­tle at the height of the De­pres­sion, skimped and strug­gled to stay in univer­sity so they could be in the row­ing eight.

In those days the Amer­i­cans picked the cham­pion univer­sity eight as their Olympic rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Thus Yale won the Olympic gold medal for the US in 1924, and the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia in 1928 and 1932.

It was quite a thing for the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton crew to win the na­tional ti­tle, fac­ing the money and priv­i­lege of the crews from east­ern col­leges such as Penn­syl­va­nia, Syracuse, Cor­nell, Prince­ton, and the Naval Academy, and against their most bit­ter ri­vals, the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia.

The book traces the progress of the crew and the bond they built.

Jux­ta­posed against the hon­est en­deav­our of the am­a­teur row­ers is the bur­geon­ing Nazi regime, pre­par­ing for the 1936 Olympics.

The row­ers, and es­pe­cially Joe Rantz, are the stars of the book, but there are other key play­ers, no­tably their coach, Al Ul­brick­son, ‘‘the Dour Dane’’, Leni Riefen­stahl, the ac­claimed film­maker and a Hitler favourite, and Ge­orge Po­cock, the quiet for­mer English­man who based him­self at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton, and sold su­perb row­ing shells for decades to any­one who wanted one.

There is a New Zealand link with Po­cock.

Ac­cord­ing to for­mer broad­caster Eu­gene Crotty, who in­ter­viewed Po­cock when he vis­ited Whanganui in the mid- 1960s, Po­cock was a mod­est, unas­sum­ing gen­tle­man.

Po­cock told Crotty that when he ar­rived in North Amer­ica he made floats for sea­planes built by two broth­ers who were pi­o­neer­ing that kind of air­craft. Be­cause funds were short, the broth­ers of­fered him shares in their fledg­ling com- pany as part pay­ment.

The broth­ers were named Boe­ing. The deal pro­vided Po­cock with free travel for the rest of his life, plus ‘‘a bit to play with’’.

One of Po­cock’s boats was bought by wealthy phi­lan­thropist ( and sports lover) Sir Wil­liam Steven­son and was used by the Mercer se­nior four in 1960.

It was ap­par­ently nick­named the ‘‘banana boat’’ be­cause of its dis­tinc­tive curve in the hull and sat beau­ti­fully in the wa­ter.

Po­cock is a recurring pres­ence in The Boys in the Boat, in­clud­ing one piv­otal con­ver­sa­tion with the hero, Rantz.

Olympic gold medals are never won eas­ily and the Wash­ing­ton Huskies, as they were known, had to bat­tle more than most.

For years they strug­gled to make the Olympic team, and when they got to Berlin they were hit by ill­ness and an un­fair and po­ten­tially fa­tal (to their chances) lane draw.

How they over­came ev­ery ob­sta­cle and won by cen­time­tres is a great Olympic story.

Foot­note: The afore­men­tioned Eu­gene Crotty has an un­usual claim to sports fame in New Zealand. He may be the only per­son to win New Zealand row­ing ti­tles as a cox ( for the Port Chalmers four in 1946) and an oars­man (in the Union eight from Whanganui in 1959).

Close fin­ish: The United States, far lane, wins the 1936 Olympic ti­tle from Italy and Ger­many.

Ge­orge Po­cock

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