25 years on - can The Boys in the Boat echo first William Hill winner's 1989 triumph?

When the title of William Hill Sports Book of the Year was awarded for the first time back in 1989, the winning volume came not from the world of football or cricket or rugby or boxing or any of the sports we regard as mainstream, but from rowing.

It was a cracking story, though.  True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny, written by the Oxford coach, Dan Topolski, with the help of the author and journalist Patrick Robinson, described the extraordinary events that preceded the 1987 University Boat Race, when five US international rowers parachuted in to bolster a team soundly thrashed on the Thames the year before ultimately quit after a series of clashes with coach Topolski.

The 2013 winner will be named this evening, with the possibility that the 25th anniversary award of sport's oldest and richest literary prize will go to another rowing book.

The Boys in the Boat: An Epic True-Life Journey to the Heart of Hitler's Berlin, by Daniel James Brown, recounts another outstanding story from the water, this time from the 1936 Olympics, the showcase Games for Hitler's Nazi regime, when it was not only the black sprinter Jesse Owens putting the Fuhrer's nose out of joint.

Rowing was not only enormously popular with spectators and competitors in the post-Depression era but was expected to provide another measure of German physical superiority at the Berlin Games.  Indeed, five of the seven gold medals contested on the regatta course went to the home nation.

The exceptions were the men's double skulls, in which the German pair were pipped to gold by Britain's Jack Beresford and Dick Southwood, and the men's eights, which went the way of the American team, whose story is the subject of Brown's book.

They were the group of largely working-class boys from the University of Washington, who were too good for the wealthy young men from the elite eastern universities when they won the US championships on the Hudson River, watched by tens of thousands of spectators.

Brown finds a central character in Joe Rantz, a boy born into an impoverished family who had been obliged to live largely on his wits after his mother died when he was three and his father fled to Canada.   With the narrative skill of an adventure novelist, he tells the story of how he and his fellow crew-members battled against the odds and how Rantz in particular found an escape in the sport that was to be his metier. The movie rights have already been sold.


Here are a couple of extracts from reviews of The Boys in the Boat, beginning with American writer Jay Parini's verdict in The Guardian...

"I've always admired Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, thereby infuriating Hitler, who stormed out of the stadium after this black man from Alabama so visibly challenged Nazi fantasies of racial superiority (at least as the usual story goes; there is now some doubt). So what if a group of brawny white boys from the University of Washington managed to win a gold medal in the eight-man boat race? Their feat – however impressive – will always seem less spectacular by contrast.

In the hands of Daniel James Brown, however, their story becomes a fine-grained portrait of the Depression era, with its economic and climatic horrors set against youthful dreams. Brown finds a representative figure in Joe Rantz, a poor boy whose determination to overcome odds make him an ideal hero. Brown learned the details of Rantz's brilliant rowing career from the athlete himself. But this story wasn't just about him; it was always about the boat: nine rangy boys – sons of farmers, fishermen, and loggers – who managed to coalesce into a rowing team that would march confidently into the 1936 Olympics under the hawkish eyes of Hitler, emerging victorious over rival crews from Germany and Italy."

Read the full review

On the rowing website row2K.com, Oli Rosenbladt says:

"Brown’s book is excellent in plotting Rantz’ progress in the context of the Great Depression, although even as Brown achieves an extraordinary historical level of detail, the prose veers into purple (or at least deeply indigo) territory at times.

As the book widens its’ scope from Joe Rantz to the wider world of Washington rowing, the (University of Washington) Huskies’ great rivalry with Cal-Berkeley, and the personalities that surround the Cal-Washington dynasties of the day, Brown is at his best. As a work of rowing history, the book is marvelously entertaining, and even the most jaded rowers and coaches will find nuggets of extraordinary value, both rowing and otherwise.

Brown is also very skillful with the personalities in the story, not only with Joe Rantz and his family and crew mates, but with his coaches, the talented freshman coach Thomas Bolles, the dour head coach Al Ulbrickson, his fiery counterpart at Cal, Ky Ebright, and a host of other great names and characters from the day.

Nominally on the fringes, but in reality deeply invested in nearly all of the proceedings is the British-born boat builder George Pocock. Part craftsman, part elite coach, and part mystic, Pocock is a fascinating character, and Brown has done the history of the sport a great service by not focusing on only one aspect of Pocock, either the boats or the sagacity of his advice to the Washington coaches and others, but shows us multiple examples of the “mystical meeting the practical,” if you will, of Pocock’s profound effect on those around.

It’s with the rowing itself that Brown does a tremendous job; it’s a sign of a writer’s job well done in his or her ability to create a thrill of excitement in the reader (as Brown did for this reviewer) over a long bygone event or rowing race."

Read the full review

The Boys in the Boat: An Epic True-Life Journey to the Heart of Hitler's Berlin (Macmillan), is among six titles shortlisted for the 2013 William Hill Sports Book of the Year prize.  The others are:

Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong(Simon & Schuster), by David Walsh

I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Penguin), the autobiography of the Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy: A Journey to the Heart of Cricket's Underworld(Bloomsbury), by Ed Hawkins

Doped: The Real Life Story of the 1960s Racehorse Doping Gang (Racing Post Books), by Jamie Reid .

The Sports Gene: What Makes the Perfect Athlete (Yellow Jersey Press), by David Epstein.

The William Hill Sports Book of the Year is the world's longest established and most valuable literary sports-writing award, carrying a £25,000 cash prize for the winning author.

The judging panel consists of broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; broadcaster Danny Kelly; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; and columnist and author, Alyson Rudd. Chairman of the judging panel is John Gaustad, co-creator of the award and founder of the Sportspages bookshop.

The winner will be announced live on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, at an evening reception at The Hospital Club in central London.

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2013: The Longlist

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's bid to make history

The 1960s racehorse doping gang: a true-life thriller

Match fixing: cricket's heart of darkness

Lance Armstrong: one journalist's tireless quest for the truth 


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