Halberstam chose a pretty apt title for his book about the four men competing to be the United States's single sculler in the 1984 Olympics.
This wasn't by mistake: his quest was to find a sport in which the reward had nothing to do with the corrupting influences of money or fame; he wanted to find a true amateur athlete, who played simply to win.
He found what he wanted in the sport of rowing, because what says "amateur" more than guys who put their entire life and body into a sport that almost no one watches? There aren't sponsors waiting to put rowers in their ads, there aren't hordes of people standing in line waiting for autographs, and there certainly isn't a lot of financial reward for the people who spend their lives on the water.
They're there because of, as Halberstam puts it, "a demonic devotion" to a sport that's somehow fulfilling…while also being insanely demanding.
So, while Halberstam writes about the four guys who compete to row in the summer games held in L.A., his main focus is on Tiff Wood, one of the greatest rowers American has ever not known.
Dude doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. Even Fuwa, the mascot for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing has a Wiki page.
But the guy who held the bronze medal in the World Rowing Championships, and was considered a favorite to win the gold in 1984, is still largely unheard of.
One thing we feel is helpful to point out is that the name "Tiff", is the result of a speech impediment he had as a child that led him to pronounce his own name as "Tiffer."
His other nickname, "the Hammer," perhaps makes more sense. Apparently, it's a common moniker for rowers who are strong but don't have the graceful style so symbolic of the sport. So it's both a compliment and insult—but it's also totally fitting.
Tiff may have lacked finesse, but it worked for him: he made the 1976, 1980, and 1984 U.S. Olympic teams. More importantly to Halberstam, though, is what Tiff gave up for his sport:
Tiff Wood was a champion single-scull rower, perhaps, some thought, the best American hope for a sculling Olympic medal in the 1984 games. At thirty-one he was, as a man who had devoted his entire grown life to rowing, the personification of the amateur. He had put aside career, marriage, pleasure in his single-minded pursuit of excellence in a sport that few of his fellow countrymen cared about and that was, therefore, absolutely without commercial rewards. (The Amateurs)
The fact that there were no commercial rewards for Tiff Wood was, to Halberstam, the ultimate sign of sportsmanship. In a 1985 article in the Los Angeles Times he said,
"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." (Source)
So that's the side that we see in Halberstam's book: everything Wood sacrificed for his sport of choice.
Halberstam delves into the emotional toll of Wood being an alternate but never getting a chance to row in the 1976 games. He writes about Wood's passionate protest of Carter's 1980 Olympic boycott, because the games were just about the only exposure his sport ever got. He explores the complex, petulant relationships between rowers, who are competing amongst themselves as much as anything else.
And through it all, a portrait of a driven but laid-back guy emerges: someone who went to Harvard but wasn't particularly scholarly, and someone who was favored to win in the Olympics but took that news with sheepish shrug.