The bobsledder is a rare breed found only in certain frigid mountain pockets. Except when the Winter Olympics come around, he is seldom seen or heard from. His triumphs usually go unsung; his grandest moments are seldom trumpeted. It is usually only some little mistake that he makes while traveling 50 miles an hour on glare ice that finally earns him an obituary notice.
Though the sport of bobbing has never been well known or appreciated, it has always shone with an international luster. Prinz Wilhelm of imperial Germany was a bobber (until his father made him give it up), and so was Baron Edward Alexander von Falz-Fein of Liechtenstein (until his wife made him quit). On more recent lists of bobbers one finds Lord Suffolk of England, the Marquis de Portago of Spain, Baron Jonny de Crawhez of Belgium, and Airman Third Class Smoky Williams of Scotland Neck, North Carolina.
It has for the most part been persons of title or rank who have brought the sport what little publicity it has had, although in actual fact, since its birth some 70 years ago, bobbing has attracted not "only the idle rich and the noble poor but also all manner of other men: bustlers and dreamers, soldiers and civil servants, insurance adjusters and funeral directors, butchers and doctors, executives and clerks.
The best bobber of them all beyond any point of argument is a 36-year-old Italian, Eugenio Monti, of the town of Cortina in the valley of Ampezzo. Monti is a small, obdurate chip off the old Dolomites. His countrymen call him a montanaro, a mountain man—which means that he is only slightly more outgoing than a chamois and about as hard to track down. The old Appalachian highlanders and the New England whaling men could have understood his ways. He speaks only when he has some point to make, and when he does have a point to make he drives it home with the skill of a Nantucket harpooner.
January 27, 1964
Eugenio Monti likes the freedom of big mountains; he likes the growling, grumbling speed of a bobsled on slick ice and the singing speed of skis on steep, hard-packed slopes. When asked recently by a visitor how he likes his small town of Cortina now that its streets and slopes are clogged every winter with tourists, Monti simply replied: "They drive too slow. They ski too slow. But they spend money fast."
In 1956, when the Winter Olympic Games were held in Cortina, Eugenio Monti won two silver medals. He piloted a two-man bobsled, like the one he is pushing to a running start at left, to second place behind his teammate, Lamberto Dalla Costa, and a four-man sled to second place behind the Swiss mechanic, Franz Kapus. Although he had never been in a sled before 1954, since the Cortina Games Monti has never been beaten in world competition in a two-man sled. He has won six world titles in that event and two more in the four-man event. In bobsledding the winner is determined on the basis of aggregate time for four runs down a slick, curvy course that, depending on the one used, varies in length from 1,500 meters to slightly more than a mile. According to the length of the course and its condition, the total time for four runs is somewhere between 4½ and 5½ minutes, and the difference between winner and runner-up is often less than [1/5] of a second. Considering that a single misjudgment can thrust a front-running team hopelessly back into the ruck, Monti's domination of the sport for nearly a decade is remarkable. It is all the more so considering that he is a bobsledder not by choice but by mischance.
Monti was born, people say, with a taste for speed. As the child of a valley guarded by the steep flanks of the Dolomites, he sought speed, logically enough, on the ski slopes, where the downhill and slalom events offered entrancing diversity not possible in bobsledding. As a 23-year-old, in the downhill event in 1951 he already was abreast of the Italian veteran skier, Zeno Colo, who won the gold medal in the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo. Recklessly rocketing off a hummock onto bare ground in a minor competition, Monti crashed, tearing the ligaments of both knees beyond total repair. He tried sports cars for a while, driving an Osca in a few minor battles, but gave it up as costing more than it was worth. He settled upon bobsledding as a decently fast career where a hobbled man would need the full, free flexion of his knees perhaps only to say a short prayer before each run.
Monti comes from fairly humble stock, but if his family ever gets the urge to climb, to lift the name of Monti, as it were, to the lordly level of bobbers of yore, a coat of arms of the House of Monti would be easy to devise. In one quadrant of the Monti heraldic shield there should be snowflakes rampant—a symbol with a conflicting, dual meaning. Monti is currently coproprietor of a ¾-mile ski lift and thus quite literally earns his living from the heavensent drifts. But the motto enscrolled under the Monti coat of arms should read, "Ghiaccio, non neve" (ice, not snow), for like most good modern bobbers, Monti loves a course of slick ice and hates the pretty little snowflakes with a constant, and sometimes active, passion. Snow slows up the track.
It is true that the order of start for each of the four runs in a competition is juggled so that the driver who has the disadvantage of going down a snowy track first gets a faster track the next time around. This perhaps makes the contest fair for ordinary drivers who steer fairly similar courses, but it cheats the genuinely competent driver out of the full use of his talents. Monti is a champion, a constant winner, primarily because he drives a different course, a better course, riding the curves high, reaching a precise apogee; then diving downward again, stealing a precious hundredth of a second more from each curve than his lesser rivals can.
Monti is not a daredevil. He has overturned only once, smashing his nose and scarring his face. He has won his world titles on all the five classic courses in the world. He has won at the beautiful track in St. Moritz and has wrung the ultimate in speed from the Zig Zag curve at Lake Placid, where Frank Beattie was thrown 100 feet to his death in 1955. He has won time and again through the Crystal curve in Cortina, where Jet Pilot Luciano Mozzolo was killed in 1957, and in Garmisch, where three have been killed. He won last year—and will be competing again next week in the Olympics—in Innsbruck, where Gunnar Ahs of Sweden broke both legs and sheared off his front teeth and Claude Brasseur of France left a bloody streak three inches wide and 50 feet long. The fact that on ice death sometimes comes on short notice interests Monti not at all. He likes the ice because it is a fair test, the victory earned on it an honest one.
In one quadrant of the Monti shield, of course, there should be gold stars, one for each of his world titles. The other two quadrants should have two or three black stars and a pair of crossed shovels. The black stars would represent the world titles that Monti probably would have won but did not, and the crossed shovels would symbolize the reason why he did not win them.
In 1960 in Cortina and again in 1961 at Lake Placid, Monti won both the two-man and four-man titles, and he was favored to win them again in 1962 in Garmisch. But Monti did not even compete that year, because he has not only a distaste for snow but also a mountain man's typical disdain for the injustices of petty officials. Back in 1958, when the world championships also had been held in Garmisch, Monti had struck a simultaneous blow against snow and petty officialdom, using only a shovel. After he had won the two-man event that year on an icy-bright track, on the eve of the four-man event the meet officials decreed that snow be scattered on the course to make it safer. In the dark of night Monti and his three sled mates stole onto the track and began unofficially removing the official snow. For all their Italian wile, they had not reckoned with the Teutonic thoroughness of the Garmisch folk. Three watchmen had been posted near the track primarily to guard the garage full of precious sleds. A watchman came upon the Italians' parked car. The police and a police dog were summoned. Monti and his team were caught, shovels in hand, with 50 yards of track cleared of snow.
The next day, when a penalty of four seconds was imposed against his team, dashing its chances of winning, Monti was rueful, saying, "All I wanted was a fast run." Then perhaps goaded by the wide, mocking grins of newsmen, he reddened and rasped, "This is the last time I will race here." As he turned on his heel and left, a Garmisch gamin pranced along behind him, making shoveling motions. Four years later the world championships returned to Garmisch, but Eugenio Monti, defending champion in both events, did not.
In the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck next week the obdurate Eugenio Monti will be trying to win the two-man title for the seventh and last time. The world championships were held on the new track in Innsbruck last year, and before the blooding of the course was done, bobbers of the U.S., Sweden, France, Canada, Switzerland and Germany had spilled all over the track. Ten of them were hospitalized. The Italian sleds, piloted by Monti and Sergio Zardini, sped through the course almost faultlessly, winning both events. Innsbruck thus would seem the perfect place for Monti to close out his career, but he is disappointed. The course is too easy (and what is more, the officials put horrid snow on it last year). Monti would prefer that his final contest be held on the challenging course at Lake Placid or on his home course in Cortina that is "tutto ghiaccio e tante curve" (all ice and many curves). He would like, in brief, to finish with an honest test of his skill.
The easy Innsbruck course will tend to leaven the competition, but Monti will still have one unusual advantage: 29-year-old Sergio Siorpaes, who serves as his brakeman. Sergio Siorpaes is a distinct asset, although he defies one of the tiresome, platitudinous laws that have been laid down for all sports. It is said that to excel in any sport you must love it and have "desire," but Sergio Siorpaes, world champion brakeman, is the most reluctant dragon the realm of sport has ever known. "He does not like bobsledding," Monti explains, "but he likes me. I say to him, 'Come on, you are a good brakeman. You are clever.' "
"I have never liked bobsledding," Siorpaes agrees. "I have tried to renounce it several times. But they will not leave me alone—Monti and Giuseppe Menardi, president of the Club Di Bob. They do not hit me on the head, but they will not leave me in peace. I do it for Monti, a good kid who it is worth to collaborate with." Siorpaes first rode a sled in 1958. For his first 10 rides, as he recalls, he felt as though he were inside an electric washing machine. He has since then won four world titles riding with Monti in the sport that he does not like.
On most sled teams the end man, or brakeman, is little more than a parcel of human baggage. Once he has done his part in getting the sled off fast, it is his simple duty to hold on and not apply the brakes until they are needed at the end of the run. Monti agrees with the general bobbing philosophy that, on a four-man sled, the two men between pilot and brakeman need do no more than sit still (closing their eyes and praying, if they care to). But on a Monti sled the brakeman, Sergio Siorpaes, serves as a second set of senses. Sitting to the rear, Siorpaes has a slightly different feel of every curve. After each run, Monti and Siorpaes compare impressions, and it is the melding of their sensations of each critical moment that brings them closer to perfection on the next run. Both of them watch the other sleds on the curves whenever they can, both of them study the course carefully before they run.
In Innsbruck, Monti could be beaten by his countryman, Sergio Zardini, who has consistently been his "pericolo numero uno." The American driver, Bill Hickey, might beat him—or Nash of Britain, or Thaler of Austria. In any case, whether he wins or loses (or is expelled before the start for shoveling snow after dark), his record will stand for a while. However long it stands, Monti will soon be forgotten—but then, obscurity is the proper destiny of a mountain man. Many people—old bobbers and new—have tried to explain his particular greatness and have generally failed, lapsing into platitudes. It has been said that he has great tenacity, desire and a will to win, that he is a natural athlete, that he is nervous and nerveless. Some say that he studies every detail, every crack in the ice. This is not so. He spends long minutes, true, gazing at each curve, but it is not the precious details of it but rather the whole clean form and dimension of the curve that he is absorbing. His greatest strength is perhaps no more than an Italianate knack for seeing more than others can, as the Italian Da Vinci saw long ago when he painted the smile of a lady. Of his own skill Monti himself has said, "I cannot explain it, but I can do it."
PEACE OF MIND ON A FRAGMENT OF WOOD AND STEEL
The smiling figure at left, his shoulders draped with a strange-looking object of wood and steel, is Fritz Nachmann of Rottach-Egern, Bavaria, world champion in the newest and least-known Olympic event. The sport is luging, and the contraption on Nachmann's shoulders is a luge (rhymes with huge), which he hopes to ride to a gold medal in Innsbruck.
A luge is what small European children (and some adults) ride down snowy hills on. In the U.S. it is called a sled. A European luge, like an American sled, is not much more than a wooden plank set on two iron runners, but when it is pointed down the side of an Alp it is not a toy for small children. Luges can travel almost 90 miles an hour, and to guide one through a treacherous sequence of hairpins and S curves requires supreme coordination, split-second reactions and plain old guts.
The origin of luging is lost in antiquity, but it probably began in the forests of the Tyrol, Bavaria and Bohemia as a means of testing the bravado of woodcutters. They used pathways cut through the deep snow by the traffic of sleds loaded with heavy trees. The first recorded luge race took place in 1823 in the Sudeten area, but it was not until more than 100 years later that the first world championship was held, and not until this year that luging was included in the Olympic program. According to Richard Hartmann, curator of luging for the German Bob and Sled Association, the reason that it took so long for luging to be accepted by the Olympic Games was the sport's basic lack of pretension. Says Hartmann: "A good two-man bobsled costs up to $2,000. The best luge shouldn't cost more than $55. For years it seemed as if the Olympic committee simply considered luging too square to admit it to the Games. But at last the enthusiasm of our promoters became contagious and we were accepted."
Many former bob enthusiasts have switched to the luge. One such person is Hans Plenk, a 25-year-old tile setter from K√∂nigsee who took second behind Nachmann in last year's world championship race in Imst, Austria. He says: "One might begin by comparing it with the difference between driving a Ferrari and driving a Go Kart. But, while the Ferrari goes about four times as fast as the Go Kart, a luge actually can go faster than a bob. On the Krynica course in Poland two years ago, a luge was clocked at 135 kilometers, almost 85 miles an hour. And the average speed on our own K√∂nigsee run amounts to 100 kilometers, or 60 miles an hour."
A luge course may run from 1,000 to 2,000 meters. A good course should include one left turn, one right, a hairpin, an S curve, a labyrinth and a lickity-split straightaway. The course is constructed like a chute, a baby bob run. The starting line is generally on a sharp decline, so, to begin, the competitors need only climb aboard and push off. Once under way, the luge is ridden in a position that is halfway between sitting up and lying flat on one's back, all the time hanging on to a leather strap. The rider guides the flying sled with no more than body English and a slight pressure exerted on the runners either with his feet or the leather thong. The only braking possible is done with iron grates attached to the boots.
A luge must not weigh more than 44 pounds or have runners more than 48 centimeters (1½ feet) apart. No specific materials are prescribed for its construction, but the Austrians are rumored to have at least two plastic luges which, they hope, will prove more resilient and flexible than the wooden luges now used. Since weight increases speed, careful checks are made of participants to guard against an increase of poundage by nefarious means, such as sewing lead pellets into pants and pullovers. Crash helmets are obligatory, as are aluminum caps to protect elbows and knees.
In Innsbruck, where the course is 1,063.76 meters long, there will be three luge events, men's singles and doubles and ladies' singles. In singles, each driver makes four runs down the course, one of them at night when the low temperatures make the track faster. In doubles, the drivers (the front man steers) make two runs, one at night. In both cases the winner is the luge with the best combined time.
There are no courses in the U.S.—in fact, there are only two sleds in the whole country—and for that reason the U.S. team, which has been doing its training in Poland, probably will win no medals. Fritz Nachmann, who has been racing and training since 1950 on the excellent courses in Garmisch and K√∂nigsee, is the probable gold medal winner in the men's singles, but as of last week he had not been entered on a two-man sled. He considers the Poles, East Germans and Austrians his most dangerous rivals. "But," Nachmann says, "it is a difficult sport to predict. It requires vigorous conditioning—weight lifting, gymnastics. But perhaps most important of all, you need peace of mind."