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John Lovesey
August 22, 1960
A new design and new tactics are threatening the U.S.'s Olympic domination for the first time in 40 years
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August 22, 1960

Now Germany Sticks Its Oar In

A new design and new tactics are threatening the U.S.'s Olympic domination for the first time in 40 years

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The odd-looking crew below, with its two middle oars swinging from the same side of the boat, appears to be all elbows and arms and obviously no match for the seemingly balanced, smooth-stroking crews that have dominated rowing for years. The oars extend farther out in the water than is customary, the crewmen have to reach higher to pull the oars, and, as they do so, they jerk up quickly on sliding seats that ride back and forth a good bit farther than those in conventional boats.

The most amazing thing about the crew, however, cannot be seen in this picture. That is the rate at which it strokes—an incredible 47 to the minute. It almost never drops under 40. Few other crews in the world ever get within two strokes of 40.

An oddity? Certainly—but an oddity that may be adorned by an Olympic medal at Rome. For this crazy-looking, crazy-stroking crew—a collection of German university students who have raced and won together since 1958—is the finest one ever produced in Germany. Profiting from the mechanical aptitude of a successful tinkerer, it has perfected a revolutionary technique which it fully expects will lead to a win over Navy at Rome and a break in the monopoly the U.S. has held in the Olympic eight-oar event since 1920.

The tinkerer who started the Germans on the way to winning is Karl Adam, a teacher of sports, mathematics and physics in an 800-year-old secondary school at Ratzeburg, a picturesque town settled on a neck of land between two lakes in northwestern Germany. He is co-coach of the combined crew of the Kiel University Students Union (known for short as the ATV Ditmarsia Kiel) and the Ratzeburger Rowing Club. The other coach is Karl Wiepcke, a lecturer in physical education at Kiel. Adam and Wiepcke are both 48 years old and have been friends for 10 years. As Wiepcke explains their working relationship, "Karl is the technician, I am the tactician."

Adam himself never rowed competitively. He was a hammer thrower and shotputter in his younger, more athletic days, and at Paris in 1937 he won the world heavyweight university boxing championship. In 1957, after nine years of coaching the Ratzeburg school crew, he began studying ' the resistance encountered by oar blades moving through water. He soon tried shortening them and increasing their width. In effect, he pushed the working part of the blade farther out toward its tip. In three years, Adam's blades have become even more extreme, and his latest design perhaps approaches the limit of the new shape (see cut). His Kiel-Ratzeburg crew calls it a "coffee spoon," but in silhouette it is more tulip-than spoon-shaped, spanning over an inch wider at its approximate center than at the tip. The conventional blade is widest at its tip.

The advantage of the design, according to Adam, is that the blade can dig deeper into the water and therefore provide extra power. The blade's edges are also tapered, and this, says Adam, helps the oarsman to lift it out of the water at the end of a stroke.

In many respects, however, Adam's blades are the least remarkable thing about the Kiel-Ratzeburg crew. The oarsmen's high-stroking caused something of a minor sensation last year during the European championship at Macon, France. According to the official report of the finals, they took off at 47, steadied out at 41 and led all the way to win easily. But some knowing crew observers claim that they sprinted at an unheard-of 52 at the start.

Short and fast

Contrary to the general impression, this high stroke has no real connection with the shape of the blades. It grows out of the fact that the Kiel-Ratzeburg oars are longer outboard than is usual. As a result, the oarsmen have to pull the inboard section of the oar through a smaller arc. The long slide allows them to maintain an upright position that is unsettling to watch but obviously effective. The style does not compress the stomach and permits far easier breathing, but it does require phenomenal amounts of power in short but sharp bursts.

Most of the crewmen have unusually large biceps, built up to suit the style by year-round weight lifting and, during the long rowing season, daily hour-and-a-half workouts on the water.

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