‘The Boys in the Boat’ gives the Hollywood treatment to rowing during an Olympic year

· Dec. 25, 2023, 4:00 am
Callum TurnerGeorge ClooneyJoel EdgertonCallum TurnerGeorge ClooneyJoel EdgertonRebecca Cabage/Invision/AP
Callum Turner, from left, George Clooney and Joel Edgerton appear during a portrait session to promote the film "The Boys in the Boat," Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP)

By Eddie Pells/AP

The journey from nowhere to an Olympic gold medal is a tale as old as time.

Just as well-worn, but far less explored, are the stories about great athletes who realize they can't make it anywhere unless they have a way to bankroll the trip.

“The Boys in the Boat” is Hollywood and director George Clooney's way of stringing those plot lines together. That it opens Christmas Day, a mere seven months before the start of the Paris Olympics, is good fortune for the people who oversee rowing in the U.S. and know the general public mostly either a) doesn't think about that sport or b) sees it as the exclusive playground for East Coast and Ivy League elites.

USRowing worked with producers of the movie to sponsor dozens of screenings across the country with two purposes: raising funds for an organization that received about $3.5 million of its $15 million budget in 2023 from charitable donations, and building awareness across racial and socioeconomic lines. One jarring stat: In 2021, a study found that only 2% of women who competed in NCAA rowing were Black. (Men's rowing isn't sanctioned by the NCAA, and so, wasn't part of the study.)

“What we’re trying to do here, and what so many clubs are doing around the country, is trying to create programs and opportunities” for people to row, said USRowing CEO Amanda Kraus.

“TBITB” is about a group of poor students at the University of Washington who try out for the junior varsity crew team. It's 1936, and far from seeking Olympic glory, these guys are simply trying to find a way to make a buck.

“All you gotta do is make the team,” one of them says. “How hard can that be?”

Plenty hard, it turns out, and what ensues is the Miracle on Ice, except on water — and with one other notable difference: Most of those hockey kids always knew where their next meal was coming from.

Certainly there are others out there in a country of 330 million looking for a fresh start, a taste of the great outdoors and a chance to try something new. Kraus believes her sport might be that thing — and that all those potential rowers don't have to be daughters and sons of millionaires.

Rowing is hoping to inspire more people like Arshay Cooper, who was a member of the first all-Black high school rowing team at Manley High School in Chicago. Cooper authored a book, “A Most Beautiful Thing," that itself was made into a movie produced by basketball stars Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade.

“In rowing, you move forward by looking in the opposite direction," is a quote from Cooper on his website that describes his worldview. "I learned that it’s OK to look back, as long as you keep pushing forward.”

The sport also hopes to build more programs, such as Learn to Row Day, when rowing clubs are urged to welcome newcomers and teach them about the sport.

So much about rowing is a steep climb. Kraus says it costs around $50,000 a year to support a Team USA rower; that comes after the tens of thousands expended on their development at the grassroots and college levels. But, she said, building a pipeline is an investment worth making, and it doesn't mean everyone has to end up at the Olympics.

“We hope people can get inspired to really check the sport out for themselves,” Kraus said. “You can be 30 or 40 or 70 and go do a ‘Learn to Row’ course at your local club. That's a real thing. You don't have to row in college to be part of this sport.”

USRowing has around 74,000 members (by comparison, the U.S. Tennis Association has 680,000) and, like all niche sports, the Olympics are its time to shine. That makes a rowing movie a Christmas present for this sport.

The high point in the film — based on the 2013 book of the same name by Daniel James Brown that's considered rowing's bible — takes place during a particularly fraught time. At the 1936 Berlin Games, Nazi flags get better placement than the Olympic rings and Adolf Hitler is a constantly glowering presence.

Nobody, however, poses a bigger threat to the boys from Washington than the leader of America's Olympic committee, who appears unbothered as he tells their coach that, even though they won their era's version of the Olympic trials, a team with a better pedigree and more money will take their place in Berlin unless they raise $5,000 in a week.

It's an absurd and unfair insult, and one that, sadly, isn't that far removed from today's realities: Politics rule. And even in a billon-dollar Olympics industry, so many athletes have to scratch for pennies, especially in America, where the government doesn't pay for anything.

They make it — getting over the hump with a bit of unexpected help — and soon find themselves rubbing elbows at the opening ceremony with Jesse Owens. The great sprinter assures the rowers he's not there to prove anything to Hitler, but rather to his own country, which still treats Blacks like second-class citizens.

We know how the Owens story ends. Now, we know how the rowers' story ends, too.

It's a quintessential underdog sports drama, all the way to the short epilogue that's intended to give moviegoers the feels about the mysticism of a sport very few understand. If only a few of them put down the popcorn and navigate to an online donations page — or maybe even a local crew club — then the small rowing community in the U.S. will have a hit on its hands.

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