One of the best times Billy Bragg ever had was in Germany in 1966 when all those little kids swarmed around, asking for his autograph. They were thrusting notebooks and bits of paper under his nose, and there he was, signing away and smiling graciously, because the important thing was that they all had recognized him instantly. "In the United States," he says, recalling that other celebrity, Spiro T., uhh, Spiro T., uhh, Agnew, "my name is not exactly a household word."
But there are compensations. For one, nobody comes around to bother or distract American canoeists when they are at home. Indeed, there is a tendency for people to walk a couple of blocks out of their way just to avoid bothering American canoeists. When canoeists stage a contest they are cheered along by crowds that could best be described as intimate. And when they go to the Olympics, the U.S. team ranks far enough down the list to be left alone.
"You would think." Bragg said, "that since canoeing is a North American thing—what with the Indians and the Eskimos—that we would be the best in the world. But we are not."
He frowned earnestly, standing beside his partner, Robert Haris, both of them blond and presentable, dressed in shorts, sneakers and layers of muscles. All around them, in the waters of Long Beach Marine Stadium, similar forgotten Americans were working out with canoes and kayaks while California generally looked the other way. All this was part of the process of picking 12 strong men and four—well, kind of strong—women to represent the U.S. in the Olympics in Mexico City, where the competitors will all paddle down that big trench recently dug at Xochimilco, just outside town. "At least there are more canoeists trying out this time," Bragg said. "In 1964 when we staged the trials only 15 guys showed up for the singles. This time there are 30."
Still, for all the noble heritage of red men and Hiawatha and those Eskimos, it was clear that the U.S. may not be quite ready to win its own sport back. And for all the awards they have won—the kind of thing that gets them instant recognition in Europe—Bragg and Haris are typical of the lonely men trying to drag canoeing up into prominence.
There are all sorts of handicaps. Foremost is the fact that the sleek eight-oared shells get whatever glory and publicity there is. There is even reason to suspect that a winning crew is made up of seven oarsmen, a coxswain and one press agent. But there is, too, the unhappy truth that competitive canoeing sounds pretty remote from the battles men have fought against white water.
This is unfortunate, because canoe racing is a frantic, powerful sport that more people ought to watch. Eight oarsmen pulling a shell in mechanical unison is fine, but there is nothing quite like the frenzied look of Bragg and Haris in their kayak—swinging double-bladed paddles in a wild spray of water and going to beat hell in a fragile 36-pound craft that they can barely keep upright. The 26-pound singles are the same way. One veteran crewman who switched from rowing shells to propelling kayaks said, "Going fast is not the problem. It took me the first six months to learn to keep the damn thing right side up."
The idea in kayaks is to churn along at full blast; something nice in, say, 120 single strokes a minute will do. You go about 10 miles an hour, which on water is a great deal faster than it sounds. There are seven Olympic events in the singles and doubles, which means, counting individual paddlers, that the Olympic survivors are going to stagger away from the whole thing with 13 gold medals.
'That is why," said Haris, "the smaller nations and the Eastern Europeans compete so much harder than we do in canoeing—because they can add to their overall medal totals by concentrating on a so-called minor sport. What difference does it make, for example, if we beat Russia in track and field if Russia sweeps the canoeing and builds its overall medal count over ours?"
Haris and Bragg and a few other well-muscled athletes are determined to stamp out that sort of nonsense as soon as possible. If not at this Olympics, well, then in 1972. Canoeists take the long view. Haris is only 30 now and Bragg is 31, in a sport where nobody is a contender until he has a few gray hairs and has age lines around his eyes, and they have been collecting titles for years: Pan-American champions in two-man kayak in 1967; national champs at both 1,000 and 10,000 meters in 1968; three North American titles. Things like that.
But in 1966 they went against the world in East Berlin where about the nicest thing that happened (they finished ninth) was all those kids asking for Bragg's autograph. "I told Haris then," he said, "that I had better sign them while I could because after the meet nobody would want one."
Now the unsung canoeists of '68 have their paddling cut out for them. Russia, that nation with the great facility for collecting medals in minor sports, is perhaps the best in canoeing. There are others on about the same level: Hungary, Rumania, East Germany, the Scandinavians and then, ranked about fifth or sixth, the U.S.
Still, the sport is consistently, if quietly, growing in this country. Bragg got into it in 1961 after winning a paddle-board contest. When someone suggested he try kayaks, it took him several months to even find one. Nowadays, hundreds of kids in California are beginning to flip over the sport—the canoes and kayaks look pretty neat, like psychedelic torpedoes—and the city of Long Beach, which may be America's most progressive boat-crazy community, recently bought 28 small shells to get kids interested in careening along the water.
Even so, Bragg and Haris are the first to point out that getting the sport to where it belongs won't be easy. They both paddle about six miles each morning and eight miles each evening, and they say that any canoeist worth his liniment also will do a spate of running to build up his wind. In brief, there is a lot of work, and the results in the Olympics may not seem commensurate. Bragg is philosophical.
"There is always the possibility," he says, "that if I don't make it in canoeing at Mexico, I may decide to run against Jim Ryun."
"Tell you what," said Haris. "I'll run Ryun at 1,500 meters on the track if Jim will get into a kayak and race me at 1,000 on the water."