As August went on, the weather became cold in Germany. The American rowing team continued to perform badly, rowing inefficiently and weakly. In the evening, they’d go drinking and eating fattening foods. On August 6, Al Ulbrickson finally put his foot down and ordered that they wouldn’t be visiting Berlin or anywhere else until after the games were over. Ulbrickson had been paying close attention to the formidable British rowing team, especially the talented coxswain John Noel Duckworth and the stroke, William George Ranald Mundell Laurie. The British team reminded Ulbrickson of his own boys at their best—they rowed strategically, pressuring their opponents into increasing the stroke rate too much. As the preliminary heats approached, the American team was anxious about its chances of success.
In Germany, the Americans briefly became undisciplined and unfocused—but as before, Ulbrickson forced his athletes to maintain discipline both in and out of the boat. Ulbrickson recognized that he needed to whip his athletes back into shape if they were to have a shot at defeating the stellar British team, with its world-class coxswain and stroke. The British team was eerily similar to the American team, at least in terms of strategy: like the Americans, the British oarsmen liked to start from behind and work their way up to a high, almost unbeatable stroke rate.
At night, the crew team had a hard time sleeping—it seemed as if there was always some ruckus going on outside, whether from the military practicing its maneuvers at night, or from a drunken group of Olympians coming home late. The crew team developed a device that allowed them to empty a bucket of water on whoever was making a noise outside. One night, the boys tried out their device on a loud Yugoslavian team—they soaked the Yugoslavians, but also some German police officers. Furious the officers burst into the building and demanded to know who’d thrown the water. Looking innocent, the Americans suggested that the Canadians had done it. At lunch next day, the Yugoslavians began singing a strange version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to the Americans, implying that they knew the Americans were responsible. Bobby Moch became so furious that he started a fight. Soon, the entire mess hall was fighting. The fighting only ceased when the Dutch national crew separated everyone using “crisp, perfect, diplomatic English.”
In this amusing passage, Brown emphasizes the American athlete’s rowdiness and boisterousness. The Americans remained disciplined during their practices—but they also found time for pranks at the expense of the other Olympic teams. Amusingly, the Dutch national crew patched up the ensuing fight between the different Olympic teams, echoing Holland’s reputation for being a neutral state. The passage might suggest that the Olympics are a microcosm for international relations, with different countries fighting one another—albeit in a prankish, way, so that the fight can be resolved before any real damage occurs. The passage becomes strangely poignant when one considers that, just a few years later, most of the countries involved in the scuffle became involved in an actual military conflict—and in World War Two, there could be no diplomatic solutions.
In the final days before the Olympics, the American crew team realized something important. Secretly, each one of them believed that they were here due to luck, and that every other member of the team was naturally talented. As the boys opened up to each other about their secret insecurities, they began to rebuild the bond of trust and unity that had helped them win on the Hudson earlier in the year. The boys knew they had two chances to row in the finals: they could win their preliminary heat outright, or they could win in a repachage—a second preliminary heat. In the days leading up to the heats, Ulbrickson made a point of backing off and letting the boys rest. Pocock had rebuilt the Husky Clipper for the Washington team; however, he noted that the American boats being used for the other rowing events were “heavy, shoddy, old, and decrepit.” Sure enough, American teams did poorly in the other crew events at the 1936 Olympics.
The Washington rowers had an epiphany leading up to their races: they were all alike in their fear and insecurity. When Joe arrived at the University of Washington, for example, he thought he was the only one who had to work to pay his way through college, and the only one who thought he didn’t belong on the team. Now, however, Joe and his peers realized that many of them came from similar backgrounds and had similar psychological insecurities. In finally realizing this, the athletes strengthened the bond of trust and friendship between them and probably improved their chances of succeeding at the Olympics.
On August 12, the day of the eight-oar preliminaries, Don Hume was still very sick, and he’d lost fourteen pounds. But he insisted that he was well enough to row that day. In the heat, America faced Japan, Britain, Czechoslovakia, and France. America got off to a bad start, with the Japanese taking an early lead. America passed the Czech team, then eased the stroke rate down to thirty-four. Meanwhile, the British team kept an equally low stroke rate, waiting for the perfect time to pull ahead. Gradually, America increased its rate, leading the British to do the same. But both teams were “saving something.” As the teams entered the final mile, Britain was ahead, but the Americans began to pull harder. In the last hundred yards, they passed Britain and won by twenty feet. Don Hume rowed so intensely that he passed out after crossing the finish line. America had set a new world record.
America’s preliminary victory over Britain could be said to symbolize the ascendance of American crew over its “old-world” counterpart—or, even more generally, the political ascendance of America, the most powerful country during the 20th century, over Britain, the most powerful country during the 19th century. However, the fact that Don Hume passed out after his victory didn’t bode well for the Olympic finals—it wasn’t clear if Hume would have the strength to continue on.
Al Ulbrickson was proud of his team, but he worried about the final race. Don Hume was still very sick, and seemed like he might have a bronchial infection. Meanwhile, the other teammates explored Berlin to celebrate their victory. Unbeknownst to any of them, Berlin was in the middle of one of the most barbaric periods in its history, during which troops captured and murdered tens of thousands of Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other “undesirables” living in the city. Instead of seeing the truth about Nazi Germany, though, the boys saw only the cheerful propaganda that Joseph Goebbels had worked hard to create.
The Nazi propagandists, organized by the cunning Joseph Goebbels, had done an outstanding job of concealing evidence of their own brutality from the international community. They’d effectively rebuilt Berlin so that it seemed as warm and inviting a place as possible—when, in reality, Berlin was undergoing a series of frightening changes that would result in the systematic murder of its Jewish, Romani, and homosexual populations.
After the reperchage the following day, Ulbrickson knew that America would be racing against Italy, Germany, Britain, Hungary, and Switzerland. To his fury, Germany and Italy had been given the two best lanes in the competition, lanes one and two (the protected lanes closest to shore), while Britain and America, the two top contenders, had been given the two worst lanes (the lanes farthest from shore, in which choppy water was most likely).
The passage suggests another reason why hosting the Olympics is often an advantage for the host country: there are many ways for the host country to reconfigure the Olympics finals to give its own athletes an advantage. Here, for example, Germany ensured that America and Britain were in the worst lanes, while Germany and its close ally, Italy, got the two best lanes.
The next morning, it rained heavily. At breakfast, the boys ate in silence—they’d been working for this day for the last three years. Ulbrickson had decided that Don Hume wouldn’t be rowing: Don Coy, the alternate, would take his place. After some thought, however, the boys agreed that it was inconceivable for anyone but Hume to row with them. Jim McMillin, team captain, told Ulbrickson how the team felt. McMillin and Bobby Moch insisted that Hume could still row—in fact, they needed him to set the rhythm of the boat. Ulbrickson hesitated, and then agreed.
Ulbrickson had a long-lasting reputation as a thoughtful coach, who never allowed his emotions or instincts to interfere with the right decision. Here, however, Ulbrickson took a major risk—he sent Don Hume, a sick athlete, into the Olympic finals. In retrospect, however, Ulbrickson made the right decision—rowing without Hume would have thrown off the group’s sense of unity, and therefore their swing.
At the water, tens of thousands of fans had turned out to watch the rowing finals. Rowing was the second most popular Olympic event at the time, after track, and many believed that Germany would win that year. Leni Riefenstahl’s cameras had been carefully mounted, and as the hour of the race approached, German spectators shouted “Sieg Heil!”, signaling that Adolf Hitler had arrived. The afternoon began with the shorter events, working up to the eight-man, four-mile race. Germany won many events, and after each victory, Hitler and his entourage cheered. At six pm, the boys, including Don Hume, prepared for their race. Ulbrickson and Pocock were nervous—the odds of taking gold with Hume in such poor shape were slim. Meanwhile, millions of Americans were listening to the radio for Olympic news.
Brown builds the suspense, emphasizing the adversity the American team would have to overcome to succeed in the finals. The earlier rowing finals ended in German victories, bringing glory to Germany and, implicitly, the Third Reich’s ideology. Thus, the American rowers weren’t just rowing for personal glory—by triumphing against Germany, they would also be challenging Hitler himself (as he was there in person), his belief in the superiority of an “Aryan” race, and the ideology of the fascist state.
The boys took their positions and prepared for the race to begin. With the wind howling, the official starter emerged from his tent, holding his flag. He shouted something unintelligible to the American and British teams, and then dropped the flag. Four of the boats pushed forward, but neither the British nor the American boat moved—the coxswains hadn’t seen that the race had begun.
The chapter ends on a cliff-hanger: the Americans didn’t see that the race was officially starting, meaning that they got off to a bad start before they even took their first strokes. With the deck stacked against them in almost every way, it must have seemed highly unlikely that they could win.