ONCE, IT was a simple procedure. You merely selected the best college or club crew in the country one weekend, sent it to wherever the Olympic summer games were being held that year, and waited, as you would wait for a bottle of Coke from a machine, for a gold medal to come back. Most of the time, it did.
Since the modern games were begun in 1900, American boats have brought home a gold medal 11 out of 14 times. The University of California has won three. Navy, Yale and Vesper B. C. have each won twice. Until recently, it had become almost a casual thing. An American victory in the eight-oared race was as expected as an American victory in the 400-meter run, or a U. S. sweep in the freestyle sprints.
Four years have changed all that, though. Harvard's last-place effort at the 1968 games at Mexico and dismal American showings in annual international competitions since then have signalled trouble for the U. S. eight at Munich next September. The competition there will be overwhelming. Defending world champion New Zealand, which upset a powerful East German group at Copenhagen last year. West Germany, victors in 1960 at Rome and still formidable. Australia. The Soviet Union. A brilliant, and, some say, invincible field.
It will not be an enviable task to coach the U. S. team this summer, and it will be a less enviable task to select it. This year, for the first time in history, the American entries in the eight-oared and four-with-coxswain events will not come from a weekend of one-shot trial races, but from a carefully picked group of oarsmen from college and club eights all over the country.
More than 400 men were on the original roster of hopefuls earlier this year. Ergometer and small-boats tests halved that number in May, and more intensive trials pared the list of candidates to 57 by the first week in June. The addition of several members of the IRA champion Pennsylvania crew pushed the roster back over 60 again, and it will be from those five dozen that Harvard, and then Olympic coach Harry Parker, will choose the eight, the four, and two spares that will go to Munich this summer.
IT IS AN entirely new concept, this "national" team theory, and it has already caused a good amount of controversy. For one thing, the boats that Parker selects will not be open to later challenge by other crews. The quality of the American entry, then, depends totally on Parker's estimation of what would make a representative eight, not on the somewhat more tangible results of a showdown among a dozen good boats.
Also, it has been charged that Parker resorted to favoritism in the selection of his finalists, and to an impartial observer, the roster does seem a little top-heavy with Harvard men. No less than 12 of the selectees rowed for Parker at one time or another at Cambridge. Six of them--Paul Hoffman, Cleve and Mike Livingston, Bill and Fritz Hobbs and Monk Terry--rowed at Mexico in one shell or another. Five more men--Dave Weinberg, Gene LaBarre, Dave Fellows, Dave Sawyier and Dave Mitchell--were members of this Spring's varsity eight. Tom Tiffany coxed the varsity in 1971, and two others, present lightweight varsity stroke Tony Brooks and Paul Wilson, also rowed out of Newell Boathouse.
No doubt, all of them are fine oarsmen, and several will probably row at Munich, but as far as several coaches including Penn's Ted Nash are concerned, many other good athletes were left out.
Originally, only captain Gene Clapp and cox Louie DeLosso were picked from Nash's varsity, a slight which supposedly stung the Penn eight so keenly that they won the IRA finals by two lengths to indicate their displeasure. Parker subsequently invited several additional Quakers to the Hanover, N. H., summer camp as a panacea.
Still, it will be an incredibly trying job to select 14 men out of 57, a fact that is not lost on Parker. Among the hopefuls, he'll have the engineroom from nearly every major college eight, with the exception of Brown. Navy's Chuck Munns, Dave Murray and John Kiser, who rowed in last year's Eastern championship boat, will be there, as will Calvin Coffey, Bill Backman and Pete Karassik from the Northeastern boat that won the Sprint title a month ago. The majority of the Washington varsity that roared through an unbeaten Spring only to fall meekly at the IRA finals has been invited, as well.
BUT NO MATTER who Parker finally takes to Germany with him, there will be bad feelings left behind, feelings that could well last beyond the Games themselves. It is a difficult and quite delicate position to be in.
Fortunately, Parker will have several instruments at his disposal at the Hanover camp that may make the selection process not only easier, but perhaps more accurate. There will be two ergometers--magical little contraptions that can indicate as closely as possible what an oarsman will do in a shell under actual rowing conditions. Harvard has used them for several years now, especially during the winter months, when the seem to be definite aids in separating a varsity oarsman from a spare. A number of coaches credit the ergometer--which resembles a rowing machine linked to a gearbox--with having created a more even balance among Eastern crews during the last two seasons.
Parker will also have a portable closed-circuit video tape system available for a more visual appraisal of an oarsman's style. In all, one gets the impression that with ergometers, instant replay and Parker's practiced eye, the eventual American entries should be as close to an impartial, representative group as one could wish.
Still, the road to a medal of any sort will be a tortuous one. Since 1960, when West Germany's Ratzeburg crew snapped a 40-year American monopoly on the Olympic eight-oared title, the superiority of the European training programs, bolstered by improvements in equipment and rigging concepts, have resulted in consistent disappointment for American eights in international races. And despite an eagerness on the part of several U. S. rowing coaches to adopt new European methods, the gulf appears to be widening, if anything.
PARKER, IN 1964, was one of the first Americans to experiment with the Ayling shovel oars that had been used so successfully on the Continent. That year, Harvard was tabbed "the world's best crew" (rather prematurely, as it happened) by Sports Illustrated, and from that time on, others were quick to take up what Parker espoused.