After months of rowing 25 miles a day and lifting weights, Olympic hopefuls might wish they could make a living at their sport. But they can't; professional rowing in the United States came to an end 100 years ago. In the decades following the Civil War--before baseball, boxing, football or basketball became big business--competitive rowing, or "crew," was America's richest and most popular sport. Then the public became disgusted with dirty tricks, thrown races and rigged betting; it was our first major sports scandal.
In the early 1870s, before rowing became tainted, Thomas Eakins celebrated the sport at the peak of its glory. An exhibition of his extant rowing paintings and drawings opened at the National Gallery in June; it will travel to New Haven and then to Cleveland. Although most people think of rowing as a sport that is reserved for the Ivy League elite, each year, all across the country, hundreds of regattas attract rowers, from teenagers to octogenarians. Generally speaking, champion rowers are tall. But you don't have to be a giant to be on the Olympic rowing team. The coxswain, who steers the boat and acts as on-water coach, needs to be lightweight. He or she must, however, have the bark of a drill sergeant and the team building skills of a den mother.