It was billed as the 1978 World Bobsled Championships, but it might better have been called Europe's Big Four against the rest of the world. The occasion marked a final salute to a 48-year-old relic, the Mount Van Hoevenberg run at Lake Placid, an icy monument to the 1932 Winter Olympics. Next summer this, the only bob run in North America and still the world's fastest, will give way to a new, $2.9 million refrigerated course that might make possible a great leap forward into that exclusive European circle for U.S. sledders.
For now, however, the world class begins and ends with the Big Four, whose accomplishments are imposing. There were the strictly business East Germans with two powerful crews headed by Meinhard Nehmer, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist in both two-and four-man sleds, and teammate Horst Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánau. Then came the Swiss, headed by Erich Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer, Innsbruck's bronze and silver medal winner in two-and four-man competition. And behind that threatening front loomed the West Germans and the up-and-at-'em Austrians.
Even before the first two-man sled went plunging down the 1,560-meter run two weeks ago, everybody else was an also-ran. Even the once-mighty Italians had fallen into the second division. "Ah, we compete," said Nevio DeZordo, the Italian coach. "But we do not compare."
The major reason for the division of power is training time. While most sledders must rely on winter cold to ice tracks in places like Cortina, Cervinia and Lake Placid, the Austrians, for example, have the dazzling new refrigerated run at Innsbruck. They begin training in late October and work out every evening of the winter. The West Germans have a refrigerated track at K‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánigssee and the East Germans have one at Oberhof. The Swiss have the best of both worlds: their home track is at St. Moritz, a fine natural course usually blessed with a long season, and they have the money to travel to Innsbruck or K‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánigssee to train when St. Moritz is down. Coming to Lake Placid, the Swiss had already completed as many as 400 runs this season. For its part, the U.S. team could not train until mid-January, and had made fewer than 20 runs. The British, French, Romanians, Canadians, Italians, et al., had to play catch-as-catch-can at various courses.
In the two-man competition, the crowd stood in the 22-below-zero cold and watched the East Germans and Swiss devour the course. Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer had broken course records twice in training, while East Germany's Nehmer had held back, possibly sandbagging. And sure enough, after the first two heats of the combined four-heat competition, Nehmer and brakeman Raimund Bethge surged to a lead of .18 second over Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer and Josef Benz. In the first heat of the second day, Benz gave the Swiss sled a tremendous push-off and Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer drove them down the course in 1:05.12, breaking the course record of 1:06.45 for the fourth time in a week. It was enough to beat Nehmer by a substantial 1.38 seconds, and Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer made his final run in 1:05.40 for a combined four-run time of 4:22.89 to clinch the gold medal. Nehmer finished second, followed by West Germany's Jakob Resch and the other Swiss sled, driven by Hans Hiltebrand. In all, sleds from the Big Four countries took seven of the first eight places.
There was more of the same when the four-man competition got under way last weekend—with two notable exceptions: the temperature warmed to 20 above, and after the first two heats the U.S. No. 1 sled, driven by Marine Sergeant Paul Vincent, crept into the exclusive company by occupying sixth place.
It was expected that Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer and Nehmer would resume their duel in the fours, but the day's most stunning performance came from Walter Dellekarth of Austria. First on the track, he bombed through the 16 curves in 1:03.97, smashing the course record of 1:04.37. But his record lasted only until Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer's sled plunged down in 1:03.90.
Determined to prove that his first run was no fluke, Dellekarth turned his second heat in 1:04.42. He thus opened a .19-second lead over Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer, who had trouble on his second run, a 1:04.68.
When the day's racing ended, the East German sleds, No. 1 driven by Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánau and No. 2 driven by Nehmer, were in third and fourth spots, just .27 and .42 second behind the leader. In training early in the week, the East Germans' times had been markedly unspectacular. Some figured they just didn't have it for the four-man. Others were sure that they were holding back.
Dellekarth, a shipping clerk who has been driving just three years, could barely believe he was leading. His best finish had been sixth in last month's European championships in Austria. "I don't think I am first," he said. "I hope I am not nervous tonight. Tonight I will probably drink more beer than sleep. Tomorrow, you don't know what can happen."
Sunday began with heavy snow falling, slowing the times and creating delays while workmen cleared the run. Dellekarth had to wait nervously for 19 sleds to go ahead of him in the third heat. Nehmer barreled down in 1:04.39. Then Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánau's sled turned a 1:04.26. Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer's sled hit 1:04.60. Then it was Dellekarth's turn.
It seemed that perhaps he had, indeed, gone too heavy on the beer the night before. A rattly, shaky run and a bad entry into the hairpin Shady Corner Curve cost him dearly—and his time of 1:05.15 knocked him out of the hunt. Back at the top for the final run, it was East German sled No. 2, Swiss sled No. 1 and East German sled No. 1—each separated by .28 second.
Nehmer's sled shot away first, turning a 1:04.71. That left teammate Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánau needing a 1:04.98 to take the lead. And now the sandbagging became evident: he drove hell-bent for a 1:04.58. Finally, on the last sled run of the day, there came Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer, requiring a 1:04.31 to win. It was not to be. The Swiss missed by .18 second, and Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánau had the gold medal. Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer dropped to second, Nehmer was third and Dellekarth fourth. The Swiss No. 2 sled, driven by Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer's brother Peter, was fifth, and Vincent's U.S. No. 1 sled held on for sixth, the best American finish in the world bobsled meet since 1969.
Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánau, in the customary businesslike East German manner, rushed straight from the medal ceremonies to oversee the dismantling of his sled. "We had been training since September, so we know what we are doing," he said. One more thing, Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánau. Were you guys really playing possum during training? Well, he allowed, "We want to start slow and build momentum for the final."
And that is one of the many lessons the U.S. learned at Lake Placid. This summer the Mount Van Hoevenberg run will be dug up and rebuilt. And then we shall see if the Americans, still buzzing after their sixth-place finish, can use the training to advantage, just like the Big Four.