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.