It was raining and foggy in mid-November as the World Cup bobsled competitions got under way in Winterberg, West Germany. Dusk set in early, and in the uncertain light the run looked like a greenish snake curling down the mountain. Up at the start of the serpentine track, the bobs were lying about, some belly-up, some on their sides. Many were shrouded in blankets, with only their shiny steel runners showing. There were guards around the sleds—coaches, mostly, and team officials, but in some cases, competitors. From time to time, one or another of the guards would stroll into the vicinity of another team's sled and stare hard into an opening in the blankets. From time to time, one or another would hunch over the runners of a rival bob and study the steel with suspicious, squinting eyes.
This was spying, pure and simple, a revered tradition among those involved with the arcane technology of bobsleds. An infinitesimal mechanical advantage can make the difference between a winning and a losing sled, and the snoops at Winterberg were hoping to catch a glimpse or a hint or a suggestion of a gadget or an idea that an opposing team may have come up with since last season. It was a tense, watchful scene, worthy of a good suspense-filled cold war espionage movie.
And that was fitting, for nowhere is the war of the sleds colder than between the sport's two superpowers, Switzerland and East Germany. In the dim November light, the Swiss coach. Erich Schärer, was nonetheless highly visible in his red parka and red stocking cap as he crouched to study the runners on an East German machine. A few yards away, Herr Dr. Rainer Eichhorn, an engineer from Spezialtechnik Dresden, which builds East Germany's bobs, snapped pictures of the Swiss sleds with his Praktica camera and made notes in a little book. And down the track, at a crucial curve, the East German coach. Horst Hörnlein, had stationed himself so he could study the lines that the fastest drivers, especially the Swiss, were taking.
One never knows when something will come of all this intense scrutiny. For example, in the 1986 World Cup meet at Winterberg, Schärer had caught the East Germans in what he considered to be an illegal situation.
They had just arrived with new sleds for the new season when Schärer's spying eyes discovered that their rear axles consisted of two pieces, instead of the conventional one piece, each supporting a rear runner and mounted directly on the chassis. At the time, the rules of the Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing specified only that the front axle had to consist of one continuous piece. But Schärer cried foul anyway. "This had great advantages." he says now. "It meant that the sled could take the corner going into the curve better. Those that had rigid axles could not do that. Nobody else objected, but as a coach, I just had to object."
"We had nothing to reproach ourselves about," says Hörnlein calmly. "There had been a technical inspection, and the commission told me they couldn't find anything that violated the rules. If our engineers see loopholes in the rules and make use of them, who could fault them?"
But Schärer kept complaining that the East Germans had an "unfair advantage." Ultimately, he persuaded other bobsled teams to join in a formal written protest to the federation. The federation let the East Germans race with their two-piece rear axle at Winterberg. but by the time the world championships were to start at St. Moritz in January, officials had outlawed the axle.
That meant that Spezialtechnik had to rebuild the East German bobs in a hurry. And just as hurriedly, the East German drivers had to adapt to the change. They were furious. Wolfgang Hoppe, 30, the top East German driver, who has twice been world champion—as well as Olympic champion in both the two-man and four-man competitions in 1984—says, "We had exactly three weeks to get ready for the world championships. If you bring something new to the sport, you are a thorn in your competitors' eyes—to be precise, in Schärer's eyes. He played a dirty trick on us. But, in fact, the only thing he achieved was that we lost training while the axle was being changed."
The East Germans may have lost more than time because of Schärer's complaint: They also lost the gold medals at the "87 worlds. Hoppe, who's widely considered the best bob driver alive, was twice beaten by the Swiss, finishing second to Ralph Pichler in the two-man event and to Hans Hiltebrand in the four-man competition. The East Germans tried to retaliate in kind by lodging a protest in which they pointed out that Pichler's runners had a suspicious yellowish color—perhaps because they had been treated with an illegal substance to make them go faster? In fact, it's a common—though illegal—practice among sledders to coat their runners with silicone, which is what the East Germans probably thought Pichler was using on his runners. It's also a common—and quite legal—practice to heat the steel runners to harden them, though they must have cooled before the sled takes a trip down the run. The heating process can discolor the metal, and that is probably what happened in Pichler's case because 'when the jury inspected the Swiss sledder's runners, it found nothing wrong. For his part, Pichler had not gone out of his way to clean the runners after heating them, and for a good reason.
"It's psychological warfare," says Pichler, 33, who was also world champion in 1983. "I had wiped my runners with acetone but left some of the color on the sides to make them nervous. We always watch each other closely. Everybody is always trying to gain an advantage. It's a historical fact."