Tuesday 11 March 2014

Six Minutes in Berlin

"[It was] the outstanding victory of the Olympic Games." (Bill Henry, CBS broadcaster)

Opening ceremonies at Berlin Olympics 1936 courtesy britannica.com.

Seventy-five thousands fans screaming "Deutschland!  Deutschland!" watched the Olympic men's eight rowing race in Berlin in 1936.  That week, Germany had rowed to five victories on the Langer See. American broadcaster Cesar Saerchinger had listened to the "Horst Wessel" (Nazi anthem) "until he was nauseated". Would he have to suffer through it one more time?

Leni Riefenstahl had arrived days before to set up her cameras for the rowing events.  Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goring planned to attend the event.  CBS broadcasters were ready to call the race.  Under overcast skies, thousands of fans, the men in suits and fedoras, the women in dresses and hats, covered by raincoats as it had rained until dinnertime, waited anxiously in the stands.

Hitler amongst spectators at Olympics courtesy dailymail.co.uk

The rowers, clad in shorts, tank tops and head bands, climbed into their shells.  The English, who had long dominated the sport, were confident.  The Italians looked strong.  The Germans, of course, were ready.  But how about the underdog Americans?

The German crew at the start line of the Olympic final.

German crew at starting line courtesy www.slate.com.

The Americans hailed from the University of Washington, not known for rowing.  They were from working class families, loggers and miners.  Unlike the 1924 Yale crew which boasted a Rockefeller and Benjamin Spock, the Washington crew did not have rich parents.  And in some cases, like that of Joe Rantz, they didn't have parents (his mom died when he was young).

Many of the Washington students had financed their education through New Deal make-work projects. Some could only dream of a trip to Europe for they had never even left their home state.  It was only thanks to the City of Seattle and a fundraising campaign held by two local newspapers that the rowers were able to purchase their tickets for their trans-Atlantic voyage.  Not only would the Americans have financial concerns but also health concerns as both Don Hume and John White caught nasty colds on the ship, the S.S. Manhattan, which transported them to Germany.

S.S. Manhattan en route for Germany 1936 courtesy frankwykoff.com.

So nine Americans climbed into the Husky Clipper on race day, their coxswain Bobby Moch facing them with a megaphone at the ready.   Head stroke Don Hume, still suffering from a cold, shivered uncontrollably. The Italian, German, English, Hungarian and Swiss boats sat abreast the American one.  Each rower's heart raced like that of a racehorse in the gate right before the pistol sounded.  Cameramen sat atop buoys, training their cameras on the boats.

And they're off!  The eight rowers in each boat looked like one as they bent their bodies as one, as they dipped their oars into the water as one.  As the boats raced along the Langer See, the crowd shouted "Deutschland!  Deutschland!" to the rhythm of the German boat.  At the 1000 metre mark, Italy was leading with Germany and England not far behind.  America, known for their slow start, was trailing.  Don Hume had seen better days. At the 2000 metre mark, Italy and Germany were more than a both length ahead of their opponents.  The crowd was deafening!

Crowd watches the race courtesy media.shelf-awareness.com.

But with only 800 metres remaining, American coxswain Bobby Moch was able to shout above the spectators, calling on his teammates to pick up their stroke rate.  Don Hume "opened his eyes and started rowing with authority".  With a mere 300 metres left, the American boat pulled even with the Italians and Germans.  At the finish line, the race was too close to call.  In a race that took only six and a half minutes, only 1 second ended up separating the three boats:  America captured first place with a time of 6.25.4.  Italy captured second place with a time of 6.26.  And Germany, the favourites, captured third place with a time of 6.26.4.

The American crew (top) crosses the finish line first.

Photo finish courtesy www.slate.com.

The American rowers collapsed in exhaustion, their coxswain's face beaming.  Olympic officials greeted them with a handshake and a wreath of laurels.  At Berlin's Olympic stadium, the American crew received their Olympic gold medals.  And for the first and only time that week, the CBS broadcasters got to listen to "The Star Spangled Banner".

Source:  www.slate.com

Note:  For more information, read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.

Gold medallists, Berlin Olympics 1936 courtesy www.slate.com.

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