In rowing, solo racers tend to hone their rivalries to a sharper edge than do competitors in the larger boats. This, of course, is because the bigger craft are raced by anywhere from two to nine people (counting the coxswain) and represent a relatively corporate effort, while the singles feature one rower against another. Andrew Sudduth, 26, a member of the silver medal American eight in '84 and now the U.S.'s best single sculler, described the difference this way: "The eight is the ultimate team performance. You have camaraderie, you have anonymity. I miss it sometimes, because the single is a very lonely boat to row."
It was the men in the lonely boats who drew most of the attention during the 14 rowing events held at the Han River Regatta Course. Before the competition began, the talk was of the longstanding rivalry between two of the sport's ancient mariners: Pertti Karppinen of Finland and Peter-Michael Kolbe of West Germany, both 35. The two had been dueling since the '76 Games in Montreal, when the dour Finn edged the technical West German, the reigning world champion at the time, for the gold medal in single sculls. Since then they have won six world championships (score: Kolbe 4, Karppinen 2), but the Finn got the gold in the '80 Games, which Kolbe did not attend, and again in '84, in their only other Olympic duel. For all his success, Kolbe had never won an Olympic gold medal.
Everyone expected another dramatic showdown between Kolbe and Karppinen in Seoul. Sadly, it was no contest. Though he looked as big and tough as ever, the 6'7", 230-pound Karppinen had passed his prime, by a lot. In a semifinal heat, the Finn finished dead last in a field of six, 31 seconds behind the 6'4" 200-pound Kolbe who, in contrast, looked as if he might be more than a match for the five young racers (the oldest was 29) he would meet in the final.
With the demise of Karppinen, the medal picture changed for Sudduth, too. All of a sudden he was favored for a medal, a feat no American male had accomplished in the single sculls since John Kelly Jr. took the bronze in 1956. Sudduth, a computer analyst at Harvard, had rowed a superb semifinal race, finishing second, only 1.05 seconds behind the current world champion, Thomas Lange, 24, of East Germany.
In the final Kolbe set the pace at the start, holding off Lange with flawless form and early power for 1,500 meters. Then the 6'2", 196 pound East German simply muscled ahead until he crossed the finish 4.91 seconds faster than the West German, who had to settle for his third Olympic silver. Not bad for an "old" man. As Lange said after the race, "I don't feel sorry for Kolbe. What I feel is respect for a man who is 35 and can still win a silver medal."
Any pity might be reserved, as usual, for the Americans. Sudduth, who has been erratic in the past, started badly and finished last. "I have felt nervous before races before, but this time I felt physically sick," he said. The bronze went to Eric Verdonk of New Zealand.
Contrarily, in the women's single sculls, Anne Marden, 30, a financial analyst from Concord, Mass., took the silver medal behind Jutta Behrendt of East Germany. In fairness, Marden did not carry quite the same history of failure into the race that Sudduth did: As recently as 1984 a U.S. woman, Charlotte Geer, had won a silver in single sculls. In Seoul, the U.S. also got a silver in the men's four without coxswain and a bronze in the men's eight. But the Han River course belonged to the East Germans, who, led by the scullers in their "lonely boats," won eight of the 14 gold medals.
Marden saved the day for the U.S.
Lange had no pity for Kolbe as he muscled by the West German to win the singles by 4.91 seconds.