Gone are the rowdy and raucous ol' days of American bobsledding, when the reigning sliders climbed from their sleds and potbellied up to the bar for their favorite physical exercise—the elbow bend, unlimited repetitions.
"Those days are over," says John Morgan, a former bobsledder who serves as ABC-TV's Olympic commentator for the sport. "With the old school, it was, 'Heave-ho, away we go let's have a drink and talk about what we just did.' In the new school it's. 'Heave-ho, away we go—to the weight room.' "
Vanished, too, is a simpler era when U.S. sliders bought sleds from Italy, tinkered with them a little in a garage, then raced them basically unchanged. "Like the America's Cup, bobsledding has gone high-tech," says Morgan.
And gone—but not forgotten—is that time when the U.S. bobsled federation, unable to attract a major sponsor, was so poor that it could barely rub two bobs together. Today, Pan Am flies the U.S. team's equipment and personnel to events. Lederle Laboratories pitches in some $80,000 a year and. most recently, the House of Sampoerna, an Indonesian importing firm, became the sport's chief sponsor in America when it agreed to donate approximately $700,000 over the next two years. (The company's owner fell in love with the sport last year while vacationing in Saint Moritz Switzerland.) And. of course, there was the $1.3 million that the U.S. Olympic Committee gave the federation out of the $215 million surplus from the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
March 9, 1987
No one slider more perfectly reflects the changes in the American sport than Matt Roy, the 27-year-old, straight-arrow real estate entrepreneur from Lake Placid. N.Y. Roy, driver of both a two-man and a four-man bob, is the nation's main hope for a medal at next year's Winter Olympics in Calgary. (The last American slider to win an Olympic medal was Arthur Tyler, who took the bronze in the four-man bob at the 1956 games in Cortina, Italy.)
This weekend at Calgary, if he performs as expected, Roy will win the World Cup in the four-man event as well as the trophy awarded to the bobsledder who has accumulated the most combined points in the two-and four-man events. The Calgary competition is the last stop of the 1986-87 World Cup, a series that, beginning last December, traveled to seven different courses in Europe and North America.
On Sunday, after finishing 10th to East Germany's Wolfgang Hoppe at Calgary in the final two-man event of the season. Roy wound up second in total two-man World Cup points. But in the four-man Roy is so far ahead of Hoppe that the East German would have to finish 19 places ahead of him this weekend to win.
Winning the World Cup competition does not mean that Roy is the best slider in the world—the top teams. Switzerland. East Germany and the Soviet Union, did not compete in all the Cup events. But last month on Lake Placid's treacherous 1,600-meter course. Roy's four-man team broke the old course record of 58.99 seconds on each of four runs, an unheard-of feat. Their combined time over the four heats. 3:55.49, shattered the old mark by almost two seconds That performance was clear testament to a new era in American bobsledding There has never been a major American four-man crew of such exceptional athletic talent and in such keen physical condition.
Switzerland and East Germany have dominated world bobsledding partly because their teams are loaded with fast, strong runners. Years ago, conventional wisdom dictated that pushers be weight-lifters, but no longer. "Today we generally look for sprinters." says Werner Delle-Karth, a former Austrian slider who now coaches for Canada. The East Germans tend to recruit decathletes for the bobsled.
A few years back, in its search for better athletes, the U.S. federation devised an eight-point skills test on which a bobsledder must score a minimum number of points to be eligible for the team. At the start of a race a sled can be pushed as much as 65 meters before the crew jumps on board, so the test involves running, jumping and strength events.
At the same time, federation members sent letters to college athletic departments around the country, asking for athletes interested in bobsledding to take the test and send in their scores. One such appeal landed the three strapping young men who eventually helped Roy launch his sled to those record runs at the Lake Placid course: brakeman Jim Herberich, a Harvard sprinter (200 meters in 20.78 seconds), crewmen Brian Shimer, a Moorhead State wide receiver (40 yards in 4.4), and Scott Pladel, a Northeastern University graduate student who was the 1980 New York State high school triple-jump champion.
The recruit who has American bobsledders buzzing, though, is one of the world's fastest humans, Willie Gault of the Chicago Bears, Gault pushed for nine-time national champion Brent Rushlaw's four-man bob that finished sixth behind Roy at Lake Placid.
As the quality of bob-athletes has risen, so has the efficiency of the sleds. At the two-man event in Calgary there were palpable differences in design—from the round and flat bellies to the noses cut in divergent shapes. The Swiss and East German sleds, some of the fastest on the Calgary run, had that sleek, state-of-the-art presence of Indy cars. The Americans are still behind the Europeans in technological research, but Roy is in the forefront of a movement to make American sleds slipperier.
Since 1985 Roy has worked with researchers on streamlining. Using modeling clay to change a sled's shape, and the University of Michigan's wind tunnel to test it out, they reduced drag by 10% on a two-man bob. "I want to be the Hans Hiltebrand of the sport." Roy says, referring to the innovative Swiss bobsled designer and champion sled driver.
As usual, Hiltebrand himself was among the leaders last weekend, but even the best racers were frustrated by Calgary's fickle weather. The unseasonably balmy temperatures played havoc with the ice, and the new $24 million, 1,475-meter Olympic course became a nightmare of cracks and bare spots.
"It's too bumpy," said Ralph Pichler, the Swiss two-man world champion. "It's the roughest artificial track that I know. There are ruts and holes and you can't drive the way you want. The straightaways have waves and you jump from wave to wave." Just as Pichler was learning how to drive the course, so the maintenance crew was learning how to prepare and maintain it. "It has to get better for the Olympics." Pichler said.
Roy figures he has to get better for the Olympics, too, if he is to have any chance for a medal. The team, though, has already notched a victory of sorts. One of the beer-drinking good ol' boys, the 35-year-old Rushlaw, has been converted to the straight and narrow. An exceptional driver, Rushlaw is off beer, has lost 25 pounds, and is determined to make his fourth Olympic team. "Mall is not only our hope; he has made everyone else competitive," says Morgan "Matt has made them all work harder."
A U.S. team coach, Mike Hollrock, an old-schooler himself, couldn't even get Rushlaw into the bar at night to have a Labatt's. In fact, he says, "Nobody on this team drinks!"
That's a change. Of course, Roy is leading it, and though he has a way to go to beat Hiltebrand and friends, he senses he is getting close. He talks about technology, teamwork, discipline and athleticism. Most clearly, the gold he seeks does not have bubbles in it.