As with sports like badminton and field hockey, fans of rowing get really excited whenever the Olympics roll around. Because until ESPN 8 starts carrying the FISA World Rowing Championships, it’s the only time we get to see the sport on TV. That is, except for the occasional basic cable airing of one of the handful of rowing movies, most of them terrible, which provide the rest of the world its only window—however silly, clichéd, or flat-out-wrong—into our beloved sport.
Take Oxford Blues, Rob Lowe’s little known (and, Lowe must hope, long forgotten) 1984 film about a young American casino dealer who scams his way into Oxford, walks onto its crew team, and beats the pants off of everyone. My favorite scene is when Lowe jumps into a single scull and wins a race already in progress, wearing jeans. Then there’s 2001’s How High starring Method Man and Redman, essentially a remake (and improvement) of Oxford Blues but with more weed. But the most baffling Hollywood depiction of rowing remains 2000’s The Skulls, in which Joshua Jackson manages to row Yale’s heavyweight eight to victory with only seven men, after one guy’s oarlock mysteriously explodes during the race, and he promptly gets up and jumps out of the boat. (Bailing out of the boat if your oar broke actually was standard practice 100 years ago, but this ended with the advent of fiberglass oars and several drowning deaths.)
The common thread in all of these movies is a working-class kid plopped into the sinister world of the Ivy League or Oxbridge elite, struggling and ultimately prevailing over his snobby peers. As the preppiest of sports, rowing is an easy and, sometimes accurate, signifier for old money privilege. The Winklevoss twins, both in The Social Network and in real life, were Olympic rowers. What Aaron Sorkin left out of his invented class struggle was that Facebook founder (and, in Sorkin’s script, crabby subaltern) Mark Zuckerberg was a rower as well, albeit at Phillips Exeter.*
But rowing is changing, slowly. It remains an expensive sport. An eight-person boat can cost as much as a small car. And of course you need a boathouse with a body of water nearby, unless you can afford to build an artificial lake, as Andrew Carnegie did for Princeton. At the high school level, the prep schools still dominate, though more and more public schools have crew teams, even if they don’t command the same level of respect as other sports. (At my public high school in Virginia, the football team got a four-page spread in the yearbook; we had to share our page with the rifle team. Headline: “Crew and Rifle: Aiming for Victory.”) On the college level, the top crews in recent years have all been from public universities. The last Ivy to win the men’s collegiate rowing championship was Harvard in 2005. Every year since it’s been Cal-Berkeley, Wisconsin or the University of Washington, which has had a proud rowing tradition dating back to the Huskies’ victory in the 1936 Olympics. For women, this year’s NCAA champion eight was from the University of Virginia. Women’s rowing in particular has grown immensely at public universities, thanks to Title IX.
The U.S. men’s Olympic eight reflects this trend: not a single one went to an Ivy League school. So does Mike Teti, their famously profane coach, who led the United States to its first Olympic gold medal in 40 years at Athens. After leaving to coach at Berkeley, Teti was brought back to steer the foundering squad in a last-chance effort to qualify for London, which they ultimately did.
Teti is a working-class kid himself, one of ten from an Italian-American family in Philadelphia. He nearly embarked on a career selling shoes before going to Temple, and later the Olympics, to row. A recent profile on the New Yorker’s Sporting Scene blog details how he likes to yell “you fucking preppies!” at his team and derides the archetype of gentleman-rowers as “a bunch of whining millionaire weirdos.” As if to emphasize his contempt for rowing’s old boys’ club, he recruited ex-football and hockey players to row for his winning 2004 boat.
US Rowing had a lot riding on Teti’s second coming. “Can Mike Teti Get America the Gold?” John Seabrook asked in that New Yorker post. Ultimately, the answer was no: After winning their qualifying heat Saturday, the men’s eight failed to medal in today’s final. Unlike the women’s eight, who are expected to win it all, the men entered as serious underdogs in a race that included world record holders Canada (who took silver) and odds-on favorite Germany (gold). Realistically, the men would have probably been happy to get bronze, which they lost to Great Britain by three-tenths of a second, though Teti surely would not have been satisfied with that result.
The democratization of rowing is unquestionably a good thing for the sport, even if pop culture is slow to notice. Maybe that’s because the jury’s still out as to whether it wins medals. America’s Olympic rowing hopes now rest with the women’s eight, whose boat includes five Ivy grads.
*Correction, Aug. 1, 2011: This post originally misspelled Mark Zuckerberg’s last name.