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‘The Boys in the Boat’ gives the Hollywood treatment to rowing during an Olympic year

by Andrew Wright
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Olympic rowing narrative

“The Boys in the Boat” brings the glamour of Hollywood to the world of rowing in the midst of an Olympic year. The classic narrative of the journey from obscurity to Olympic gold is a story as old as time itself. However, what often remains unexplored are the tales of remarkable athletes who discover that achieving their dreams requires financial backing.

This cinematic endeavor, spearheaded by Hollywood luminary George Clooney, weaves these two narrative threads together. Its release on Christmas Day, a mere seven months ahead of the Paris Olympics, offers serendipitous timing for those entrusted with the development of rowing in the United States. They are acutely aware that, in the eyes of the general public, this sport either does not register on their radar or is perceived as an exclusive pursuit reserved for the East Coast elite and Ivy League circles.

USRowing, the governing body of the sport in the U.S., collaborated with the film’s producers to organize numerous screenings across the nation. This collaboration served a dual purpose: raising funds for an organization that relies heavily on charitable donations, with $3.5 million of its $15 million budget allocated for 2023 coming from such contributions, and fostering greater awareness across racial and socioeconomic boundaries. An alarming statistic underscores the need for this outreach—only 2% of female NCAA rowers were Black, as revealed by a 2021 study. (It is worth noting that men’s rowing is not sanctioned by the NCAA and was thus not included in the study.)

Amanda Kraus, the CEO of USRowing, articulates the overarching goal: to create avenues and opportunities for individuals to engage in rowing. “The Boys in the Boat” unfolds the story of a group of financially disadvantaged students at the University of Washington during the year 1936. Far from chasing Olympic glory, these young men are simply seeking a means to make a living.

As one of them quips, “All you gotta do is make the team. How hard can that be?” The reality, however, proves to be a formidable challenge. What follows is nothing short of a nautical version of the “Miracle on Ice,” albeit with one crucial distinction: unlike most of those hockey players, these rowers have no certainty about their next meal.

In a nation of 330 million individuals, there undoubtedly exist countless others yearning for a fresh start, a connection with the great outdoors, and the chance to embark on something new. Kraus envisions rowing as the potential solution, one that does not necessitate a privileged background. Rowing aims to inspire individuals like Arshay Cooper, a member of the first all-Black high school rowing team at Manley High School in Chicago. Cooper’s story has been immortalized in his book, “A Most Beautiful Thing,” which was adapted into a film produced by basketball luminaries Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade.

“In rowing, you move forward by looking in the opposite direction,” is a poignant quote from Cooper’s website that encapsulates his worldview. It conveys the idea that reflecting on one’s past can coexist with a relentless pursuit of progress. The sport aspires to establish more initiatives, such as Learn to Row Day, during which rowing clubs extend a warm welcome to newcomers, imparting knowledge about the sport.

Rowing is an endeavor laden with financial demands. Kraus elucidates that sustaining a Team USA rower costs approximately $50,000 annually, following significant investments at grassroots and collegiate levels. However, she maintains that constructing a robust talent pipeline is a worthwhile investment, even if not every aspirant reaches the Olympic pinnacle.

“We hope people can get inspired to really check the sport out for themselves,” Kraus emphasizes. Rowing is an inclusive pursuit that transcends age; one can embark on a “Learn to Row” course at their local club at the age of 30, 40, or even 70. This option is not contingent upon collegiate participation; it beckons individuals from all walks of life to partake in this sport.

USRowing boasts around 74,000 members, in stark contrast to the U.S. Tennis Association’s 680,000 members. As is the case with niche sports, the Olympic Games serve as the prime platform for rowing to shine. Thus, a rowing-themed film is a fitting Christmas gift for the sport.

The film’s zenith, derived from Daniel James Brown’s 2013 book, unfolds in the backdrop of the 1936 Berlin Games. Nazi flags claim more prominent display than the Olympic rings, and Adolf Hitler casts a perpetual shadow. Yet, a more immediate threat looms for the underprivileged Washington rowers: the head of America’s Olympic committee, seemingly unmoved, informs their coach that unless they raise $5,000 within a week, a team with superior lineage and financial backing will replace them in Berlin.

This absurd and unjust affront, regrettably, is not as distant from contemporary realities as one might hope. Politics wield substantial influence, and many athletes, especially in America, grapple with financial challenges since the government does not offer substantial support.

The rowers ultimately surmount this formidable hurdle, aided by unexpected assistance. Soon, they find themselves rubbing shoulders with Jesse Owens at the opening ceremony. The legendary sprinter reassures them that his presence is not a demonstration for Hitler but rather a testament to his own nation, one that continues to treat Black individuals as second-class citizens.

The outcome of Jesse Owens’ story is well-documented. Now, thanks to “The Boys in the Boat,” we also know the fate of these rowers. It is a quintessential tale of underdogs prevailing against the odds, culminating in a poignant epilogue designed to evoke a sense of wonder about a sport that remains enigmatic to many. If even a handful of viewers set aside their popcorn and explore the possibility of supporting rowing through online donations or local crew clubs, the small yet passionate rowing community in the United States will have achieved a resounding success.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Olympic rowing narrative

Q: What is “The Boys in the Boat” film about?

A: “The Boys in the Boat” is a film that tells the inspirational story of a group of financially disadvantaged students at the University of Washington in 1936 who try out for the junior varsity crew team with the aim of finding a way to make a living.

Q: Why is the release of the film significant for rowing in the U.S.?

A: The release of the film is significant for rowing in the U.S. because it provides an opportunity to raise funds for the sport, which relies on charitable donations, and aims to increase awareness across racial and socioeconomic lines, addressing issues of diversity and inclusion within the sport.

Q: How does the film depict the challenges faced by these rowers?

A: The film portrays the rowers’ challenges, including the financial hardships they encounter and the daunting task of competing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It also highlights the political and financial pressures they face, emphasizing the role of politics in sports.

Q: What is the message the film conveys about rowing?

A: “The Boys in the Boat” conveys the message that rowing is an inclusive sport that can be pursued by individuals of various backgrounds and ages. It encourages people to explore rowing as an opportunity for personal growth and engagement, even if they don’t aspire to become Olympic athletes.

Q: How can viewers support rowing after watching the film?

A: Viewers can support rowing by considering online donations to organizations like USRowing, participating in “Learn to Row” programs at local rowing clubs, or simply exploring the sport as a recreational activity, irrespective of their age or prior experience in rowing.

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