David Halberstam wrote The Amateurs about the 1984 United States Olympic Rowing Trials. The author was alternatively fascinated with current affairs, American culture and sports. Many of his works seek to determine why events unfold as they do and his athletic works try to explain why people motivate themselves and how they work together.
The Amateurs tells the stories of young men who are auditioning for the single sculling boat in the upcoming Los Angeles Olympics. In 1984, there was little media coverage of the sport so there is little chance for fame and fortune. The Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries have withdrawn, leaving a depleted field to compete against. Rowing is a fringe sport, often performed alone or in small groups like a double or a quad. The only motivation to succeed is self-actualization, the ability to push oneself and emerge a better person at the end of a two-thousand metre race than before.
Everything is coloured by the fact that only one rower can earn the spot. Although the athletes have worked together as part of varsity rowing crews and must support each other because the sport is such a struggle, they are constantly competing with each other. Every race, training session or even conversation away from the water is an exercise in mental and physical toughness, a chance to demonstrate superiority or find a weakness. The U.S. representative is determined by a single race and there is no value to finishing second.
Some of the key characters are coach Harry Parker, who also oversees the rowing program at Harvard University. Many of the relationships are influenced by the Yale-Harvard rivalry and the two lead contenders for the spot, John Biglow and Tiff Wood, rowed for the venerable Ivy League components. Parker is known for his impersonal coaching style, a distant and demanding figure who inspires rowers to push themselves beyond the point of exhaustion. Those who like him love him and those who do not, loathe him and his attitude. At Harvard, holding the team to extremely high standards and rewarding rowers with potential self-actualization builds strong bonds between the coach and the crew.
Selection to the national rowing team reflects well on the school from which the rowers graduated so Parker is in a position to bestow glory on himself by selecting Harvard rowers to the double and quad boats. Some team members can never see beyond this perception of bias and it becomes an impassable obstacle in their relationship with Parker. Parker’s status has been threatened by a lack of recent U.S. international success and a losing streak in the annual Harvard-Yale Regatta.
The arcane qualification system used by the U.S. Olympic Committee entails that after the team boats are determined at camp and participate in an international tour to prepare for the games, they can be challenged by rowers who were not chosen in a last-chance regatta. The “official” double and quad boats lose to “challengers” who were inspired by their dislike of Parker and motivated by the adversity they experienced.
The qualification regatta is a battle between Biglow and Wood. Biglow is the younger and technically gifted rower who was the U.S. National Champion in 1981 and 1982 before back injuries held him back in 1983. He rowed for Yale in the late 1970s, a key member of a talented crew who could never beat Harvard. Wood is older (Harvard ’75), more powerful but less skilled; he sees rowing as a medium to give everything that he can, whether it is during a workout or a competition. He was the spare in 1976, a member of the 1980s team which boycotted the Moscow Games and most recently won the U.S. title and world bronze medal in 1983. The regatta is as much a boat race as it is a clash of styles.
Biglow ultimately triumphs but both he and Wood become tragic figures. Wood becomes the spare, a member of three Olympic teams who never rowed in the Games. He is admired for his tenacity but that same quality leads to an unpolished stroke which meshes awkwardly with other oarsmen, leaving him the odd man out for team boats. Biglow competes in a major regatta in Lucerne and begins to lose the confidence which had recently driven his rowing career. He cannot shake the suspicion that Wood should be the U.S. representative and ultimately rows a poor race in the Olympic final, finishing out of the medals.
Halberstam’s book distils sport down to its essence: outside of success and failure, public adulation and monetary rewards, it is a competition against oneself. Eventually, all of the athletes must quit the sport. Their self-satisfaction is not necessarily tied to the result of each race but whether the rower left it all in the water. That is the question that Biglow, Wood and the other contenders must answer before they proceed with the rest of their lives.