The Amateurs

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Super Bowl, super sports, super jocks, all the Olympic media attention--these led David Halberstam (author of BREAKS OF THE GAME and THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST) to search for a truly amateur sport. In rowing, he found one whose participants were little known outside their own sport and who had no hope of achieving great fame or financial reward. He focuses on Tiff Wood, at thirty-one the oldest and still the one to beat, John Biglow, Joe Bouscaren, Brad Lewis, and Harry Parker, the Harvard University and Olympic coach who played a major role in all their lives. Wood had rowed at Harvard, had made the 1980 Olympic team only to be frustrated by the boycott, and still was determined to try again. Bouscaren and Biglow had been a year apart at Yale University, while Lewis was a loner from the West Coast in a sport dominated by Ivy League teams. All four are revealed as intelligent, complex, compulsive, totally caught up in their chosen sport.

Throughout the book, the emphasis is on what makes these athletes tick, what drives them so single-mindedly that careers, money, and even friends may exist only in relation to rowing. In addition, the level of pain involved sets this sport apart from most others. Each of them constantly had to overcome the very anticipation of pain even to practice. This intensely individual motivation, along with pride, considerable pain, and great mental as well as physical preparation, places the competitors high on what Halberstam calls the “index of self-esteem.”

By alternating sections on each rower’s background and development before bringing the contestants together at the tryouts and training camp, the author conveys the tension of accelerating competition, the pressures building as the culmination of more than four years of work narrows to one person in one race. Halberstam succeeds wonderfully in showing the reader the psychology of competition, the devotion to a goal, the inner drive that sets a few so far apart from the rest of us.