The Boys in the Boat isn’t just a book about rowers; it’s also about the political role that athletic events play in different communities. In the first half of the 20th century, rowing was one of the most popular American sports—as popular as football or basketball in the 21st century. Teams from around the country traveled to compete, with tens of thousands of fans watching and millions more listening via the radio. As a result, cheering for one’s crew team was more than just a form of entertainment; it was a way of celebrating one’s town, one’s state, or even one’s country. Rowing is a very challenging sport, requiring tremendous strength and intelligence, not to mention a huge amount of practice. By cheering for rowers, then, fans were celebrating the best their communities had to offer—in other words, celebrating their communities themselves. Furthermore, supporting one’s community became especially important during the Great Depression, the period during which the book is set. With millions of people out of work, and an overall mood of despair in the air, cheering for rowers was a powerful way to honor community at a time when many people felt that their communities were falling apart.
The Boys in the Boat shows that sports can be an important way to celebrate one’s community—and, furthermore, put that community on the map. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the state of Washington invested considerable resources in its rowing programs, because it believed—rightly so, it would seem—that a successful crew program would bring respect and attention to the state. The mayor of Seattle raised considerable funds to send the University of Washington crew team to Poughkeepsie for the annual Hudson Regatta—in effect, the national championship—and later the 1936 Olympic games. In the long run, the mayor’s investment paid off big: Washington’s victories at Poughkeepsie and Berlin made it a magnet for aspiring rowers, coaches, and boatbuilders (to this day, the University of Washington has one of the best crew programs in the world). Furthermore, the crew team’s success may have attracted tourists and popularized the city of Seattle at a time when many Americans hadn’t even heard of it.
But there’s more than one way for sports to put a community on the map. In addition to exploring the role of crew in Washington state history, The Boys in the Boat shows how the Nazis used sports to bring their country an undeserved reputation for enlightenment and tolerance. When Germany hosted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the government went to great lengths to make Berlin seem perfect in every way: beautiful, well-organized, and—most importantly—tolerant of all people. Hosting the Olympics in Berlin put Germany on the map in the sense that it reminded the world of Germany’s athletic excellence. But it also sent a subtly different message: that Germany was a bastion of peace, simply by virtue of the fact that it was hosting the countries of the world. (See “Propaganda” theme.) In all, the book demonstrates the importance of athletics for different communities. Athletes are like ambassadors, competing on behalf of a community—or else standing for peace and tolerance by competing alongside athletes from other communities. Put another way, sports is a political weapon, which can be used for purposes benign (the Seattle state government subsidizing its crew programs) or malicious (Adolf Hitler’s decision to host the Olympics).
Sports, Politics, and Community ThemeTracker
Sports, Politics, and Community Quotes in The Boys in the Boat
And perhaps that was the worst of it. Whether you were a banker or a baker, a homemaker or homeless, it was with you night and day—a terrible, unrelenting uncertainty about the future, a feeling that the ground could drop out from under you for good at any moment.
And Hitler, as he listened to Goebbels, and knowing full well what he had planned for Germany in the days, months, and years ahead, had slowly begun to recognize the value in presenting a more attractive face to the world than his brown-shirted storm troopers and his black-shirted security forces had displayed thus far. At the very least, an Olympic interlude would help buy him time—time to convince the world of his peaceful intentions, even as he began to rebuild Germany's military and industrial power for the titanic struggle to come.
The next year, 1924, Washington returned, with a young Al Ulbrickson rowing at stroke, and won the varsity race again, decisively this time. In 1926 they did it yet again, this time with Ulbrickson rowing the final quarter of a mile with a torn muscle in one arm. In 1928, Ky Ebright's California Bears won their first Poughkeepsie title en route to winning the Olympics that year and again in 1932. By 1934 the western schools were finally beginning to be taken seriously.
As Joe raised a hand to acknowledge the wave of applause rising to greet him, he found himself struggling desperately to keep back tears. He had never let himself dream of standing in a place like this, surrounded by people like these. It startled him but at the same time it also filled him with gratitude, and as he stood at the front of the room that day acknowledging the applause, he felt a sudden surge of something unfamiliar—a sense of pride that was deeper and more heartfelt than any he had ever felt before.
For Ulbrickson, there was one overriding, and dark, fact to be confronted: he had failed again to make good on his public promises. It was very much an open question whether he was going to get another chance.
It was Brundage himself, however, who came up with perhaps the most twisted bit of logic to advance the antiboycott cause: "The sportsmen of this country will not tolerate the use of clean American sport as a vehicle to transplant Old World hatreds to the United States." The trouble—the "Old World hatreds"—in other words, came not from the Nazis but from the Jews and their allies who dared to speak out against what was happening in Germany.
Ulbrickson knew full well that money more or less grew on the trees at Yale, and that funds had been vastly easier to come by in 1928, before the Depression, than in 1936.
They were now representatives of something much larger than themselves—a way of life, a shared set of values. Liberty was perhaps the most fundamental of those values. But the things that held them together—trust in one another, mutual respect, humility, fair play, watching out for one another—those were also part of what America meant to all of them.
Bobby had been brought up to believe that everyone should be treated according to his actions and his character, not according to stereotypes. It was his father himself who had taught him that. Now it came as a searing revelation that his father had not felt safe enough to live by that same simple proposition, that he had kept his heritage hidden painfully away, a secret to be ashamed of, even in America, even from his own beloved son.
After the long battle over the boycott issue, Brundage was clearly thrilled to be here. Basking in the applause of his German hosts, he exulted: "No nation since ancient Greece has captured the true Olympic spirit as has Germany."
The Americans marched awkwardly on around the track and onto the infield to the strains of the "Deutschlandlied." George Pocock would later say that when they heard the strains of the German anthem they began to march deliberately out of step with the music.
It was the almost perfect inverse of the order he had expected based on the qualifying times. It handicapped the most talented and fastest boats, and gave every advantage to the slower boats. It gave the protected lanes to the host country and her closest ally, the worst lanes to her prospective enemies.
In the white-hot emotional furnace of those final meters at Grünau, Joe and the boys had finally forged the prize they had sought all season, the prize Joe had sought nearly all his life. Now he felt whole. He was ready to go home.
When Hitler watched Joe and the boys fight their way back from the rear of the field to sweep ahead of Italy and Germany seventy-five years ago, he saw, but did not recognize, heralds of his doom. He could not have known that one day hundreds of thousands of boys just like them, boys who shared their essential natures—decent and unassuming, not privileged or favored by anything in particular, just loyal, committed, and perseverant—would return to Germany dressed in olive drab, hunting him down.