THE TRUE AMATEURS : In ‘The Amateurs,’ Author David Halberstam Discovers That the Olympic Spirit Still Burns Within Athletes Such U.S. Rowing Team Alternate Christopher Wood (at Left)
Like millions of other Americans, David Halberstam was eager to watch the 1984 Winter Olympics from Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. He soon found himself trying to turn off the hype he had unwittingly turned on.
Like everyone else, he heard the countless references to skier Bill Johnson--not so much to Johnson’s chances of winning a gold medal but to how much money he could make for finishing first.
He heard the hype for the U.S. hockey team, whose fate--sadly, inevitably--couldn’t match that of its counterpart four years earlier. He found it difficult to sympathize with ABC, a deeply embarrassed network.
After quiet reflection, Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wondered if true amateurs even existed anymore. To find out, he investigated the world of the single-scull rower. A year and a half later, the result is a fine new book, “The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for An Olympic Gold Medal.”
Early reviews of the book, just released by William Morrow, are promising, not only for its quality of writing but for insight into a sport most Americans know little about.
For Halberstam, 51, “The Amateurs” is his second book on sport. The first was “The Breaks of the Game,” written in 1981 about the unraveling of a franchise in the National Basketball Assn.
“I like to do sportswriting on the side,” he said recently. “I have sort of a little side store of mom-and-pop sportswriting. Sport is an excellent mirror to the condition of America, of how our values have changed. Whether it’s the impact of television on society, or the impact of the new materialism, sport says a lot about our change of focus, our change of purpose.”
The world of the rower, he was pleased to find, was a happy alternative to the big-bucks emphasis of professional sport.
“Almost a 19th Century world,” he said. “A world untouched by television. It is as it was. If I had done the book 50 years ago, I would have found almost the same world.”
The world Halberstam found was populated by attractive people, in looks, temperament and ideology. Their most compelling attribute was a passion for their sport.
One of the main characters is Christopher (Tiff) Wood, a 32-year-old Harvard graduate who made the 1984 Olympic team as an alternate but did not compete in the Games.
Halberstam writes about Wood’s routine of getting up in the darkness of a Boston morning, the wind chill dropping below zero, to pursue in solitude a series of strokes on the Charles River. His is a sport no one will televise, almost no one will write about, and few will even watch. Wood talks of such discipline as a step-by-step process, the rewards of which are nothing but an inner peace that is hard to define.
Halberstam describes Wood as a “very intelligent, extraordinarily sensitive, fair-minded person.”
Wood was coming off a year (1983) in which he had won a bronze medal in the world championships. His expectations were great. He was a source of wonder for Halberstam in other ways. Here was an athlete he was able to interview for more than a half-hour, and without the intrusion of a meddlesome PR man.
He said with some amazement: “I was dealing with a complete adult, one generous and kind in spirit, and willing to talk with the utmost honesty about a world he had given his life to--almost a secret world where the rewards were nothing but the sport itself.”
The book also profiles John Biglow, a 1980 graduate of Yale--Wood’s chief rival and close friend--who made the Olympic team, finishing fourth in single sculls; Brad Lewis, a UC Irvine graduate who won the gold in double sculls; and Joe Bouscaren, an ’80 Yale grad who in the trials finished fourth in singles and doubles but failed, agonizingly so, to make the Olympic team.
Halberstam writes often of Wood’s failure--for him, a devastating loss that haunts him even now. His handling of Wood’s pain gives rise to an old Jimmy Cannon line that losers with a tear in the eye make much better copy than winners bathed in champagne.
“I was apprehensive about reading the book,” Wood said by telephone from Boston. “Not that I feared he would say something I didn’t like, but that in reliving that period--in total detail--I would find it difficult, even troublesome. The feelings it brings out are, for me, not very positive. It was a very tough time, a very tough year.”
Wood also worried about the effect the book might have on rowing friendships. One of the more altruistic benefits of the rowing experience, he said, is the friendships one makes--the sense of teamwork one cultivates.
This, too, makes it different, Halberstam said, from the numbers-oriented professional world.
Wood now says, however, that the book is a minor masterpiece. He found the author “a careful writer” and appreciated his obsession--talking to an endless number of sources--to make the book accurate in fine detail.
Seth Bauer, former coxswain of the Yale team and a friend of all four men, sees the book as “wishfulness for the age of amateurism . . . He captured a world few people know about at all. And he really captured a series of very complex personalities.”
They stand out, it seems, as personalities unsullied by the forces that seem bent on making a mockery of professional sport, or of what Halberstam calls “pseudoamateurism"--college basketball, Olympic track, et al . He sees the four, including “the other Lewis"--Brad--as being much different from gold-medal winner Carl Lewis, who cultivated an image through pre-recorded cassettes made available to hungry journalists and wangled a photo credit for a picture of himself in Time magazine.
"(Carl) Lewis was self-evidently talented and self-evidently spoiled,” Halberstam said. “He began to believe his own myth, that he was that important.”
In a sports world changed and molded by money, Halberstam sees more Lewises, more dark days ahead than bright ones.
“Where there’s more television, there’s more money,” he said. “With so much television and so much money, anybody who knows about sport at all knows that’s a recipe for disaster. College sports, in particular, may experience a whole new wave of violations and cheating.”
The amateurs, the author believes, are different. They could set a standard for what sport was, and ought to be.
“People like Tiff Wood are, I think, more in touch with the realities of sport--with the nature of sport as games worth playing,” he said. “They don’t dream of $8-million Wheaties contracts for doing this or that the right way. They espouse ideals all of us, I think, would do well to observe.”