"It was not a celebrated event. It was an Olympic trial.... But no tickets were sold, and the community in which it was held...largely ignored it." So begins The Amateurs ( William Morrow, $14.95), David Halberstam's new book about rowing, a demanding sport that is itself largely ignored. The amateurs of the title are scullers—oarsmen who row with two oars, unlike sweep oarsmen, who row with one—and the book is about the selection of the 1984 Olympic rowing team and a legendary coach, Harvard's Harry Parker, who has been a U.S. Olympic coach since 1964.
Halberstam, the author of The Best and the Brightest, devotes nearly two-thirds of the book to the competition among four men for one single-sculling slot on the '84 U.S. Olympic team. Tiff Wood, Harvard '75, had been a member of a great eight in his junior and senior years. Wood had decided to continue rowing after graduation. In 1976 he was the spare sweep oar on the U.S. Olympic team; in 1980 he was in a quad that never got to compete; and in 1983 he won a bronze medal in single sculling at the world championships. The 1984 Olympic trials in Princeton, N.J. found him favored for the single-scull slot. John Big-low, Yale '80, had won the bronze at the '81 and '82 worlds. Joe Bouscaren, Yale '79, had beaten Wood in 1983 in the prestigious Head of the Charles, a three-mile race on the Charles River. And out of the West came a single-minded loner named Brad Lewis, 29, who had rowed for UC Irvine and had suffered a narrow loss to Wood in an 850-meter sprint event the previous year. Halberstam makes us care about the four men, their disappointments and the brutal testing of their friendships. Even for readers who know the outcome, his narrative of how Biglow finally won the single-scull spot with a finish-line sprint past Lewis maintains the suspense to the very last stroke.
Trials for the double scull and quad were to be held in a later session in Princeton. The scene now shifts to Parker's Hanover, N.H. camp, where Wood, Bouscaren and Lewis and about 10 other contenders vied for places in Parker's double and quad entries—six positions in all. Halberstam does a masterful job of re-creating the atmosphere in the camp, which is dominated by Parker, a taciturn genius whom some of the scullers loathed and others revered. Of Parker's "singular form of authority," Halberstam writes: "His nature did not encourage intimacy.... His great triumph was that he forced his oarsmen to find what they were looking for within themselves.... His strength was in his distance, the fact that they had to reach for him as he could not reach for them, and by reaching for him they met his standards." Perfectly put.
The camp "was filled with anxiety and tension that turned inevitably into paranoia," Halberstam writes. The best single-scullers do not always make the best team scullers, and the chronicle of clashing egos is replete with shifting alliances, whispering campaigns, shouting matches and even a poison-pen letter.
How did it all turn out? Well, Lewis had left Parker's camp to form a double with another West Coast rower, Paul Enquist, and this pair subsequently won the doubles trials, dramatically defeating Parker's own choice, which was a tremendous blow to the coach. Lewis became the only one of Halberstam's original four single-scullers to fulfill his Olympic dream: He and Enquist won a gold medal in the doubles. Biglow surged too late in the singles finals and finished fourth. Wood was selected as the team's spare—and at the end of his third Games he had not rowed a stroke in Olympic competition.
Unfortunately, The Amateurs is weakened by some sloppiness that is too annoying to ignore. Where was the editor when a photo of Harry Parker was captioned "Harry Porter" and when a coach was said to have worked in the "Pacific Northeast"? This is a story about gold medals, but much of the writing in The Amateurs is leaden. Halberstam's sentences are often convoluted beyond readability. There are jarring inconsistencies and confusing or inadequate explanations. Halberstam's sound reporting deserves better editorial care.
Rowing is a beautiful sport that is difficult to write about. Give Halberstam a bronze medal and an A for effort. Let him try for a double next time, perhaps with a new editor.