The informant rowed for the University of California, Berkeley’s lightweight crew team for four years before graduating. He rowed in numerous regattas throughout his athletic career in college, and describes a ritual that he observed―and practiced―at the end of every race. The informant continues rowing recreationally and recounted the practice of the ritual in his apartment, where he had just returned from an early morning row out in the Oakland estuary.
After a race, if you lose, you are traditionally supposed to remove the tank top that you wore during the race and give it to the winning crew. Why do we do it? It is almost like you’re paying tribute to the winning crew. In most crew races you don’t receive a medal, so it’s almost like the honorable thing to do if you lose is to give something of yours to the winners. It’s a very long-standing tradition. I learned very quickly after I lost my first race. I just observed some of the older varsity members take off their tanks―well, traditionally the practice began with taking the actual tank off of your back. That’s kind of gross in a lot of ways because you’re sweaty and it’s a bit nasty so what most people end up doing is bringing extra tanks to any given regatta so we can hand out fresh tanks if we lose. You go over to the opposing crew and you meet the guy who sits in your seat. So, let’s say if I was in the bow, then I would go up to the bow seat in the winning crew. I would introduce myself, make a little awkward small talk, and then hand my tank to him. The winners might collect a lot of tanks depending and how many boats were in the race. Some boats don’t abide by this tradition, but then they’re considered as assholes.
The collection of the informant’s story immediately following his morning practice is of particular importance because of the informant’s demeanor during his retelling. He spoke softly and his eyes looked distant, as if he were recalling the memories of former races with nostalgia. This suggests that, despite the fact that the informant surrendered many of his own tanks to opposing crews, the ritual itself was more important as it functions as an integral part of the rower’s experience. Similar practices are seen in other sports―notably, soccer―but not perhaps as formalized as the ritual the informant describes.
It is also interesting to note that the ritual has adapted over the years and teams now bring a fresh set of tanks to the regatta, raising the issue that hygiene has perhaps taken precedence over the value of the losing rowers’ hard work manifested in his sweaty tank. In this case, it seems the act of surrendering the tank may now be more significant than the tank itself as a symbol.