SI Vault
Bob Ottum
February 20, 1967
The world bobsled championships on the new Olympic run at Alpe d'Huez, France turned into a shambles of crashing sleds on the rotten ice of a disastrous course
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February 20, 1967

A Ghostly Go For The Bobs

The world bobsled championships on the new Olympic run at Alpe d'Huez, France turned into a shambles of crashing sleds on the rotten ice of a disastrous course

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The too-soft ice was badly rutted. The run had been built facing south, because the ski runs take up all the other slopes, but nobody counted on the fact that the thing lay in bright sunshine all day. Alpe d'Huez claims to be the sunniest ski resort in the world, and for weeks, through usually cold, gray January, it had more than lived up to its claim. The bob run during the day took on the characteristics of a drunken irrigation ditch. When the temperature plummeted after sundown, the ice jelled—but not enough. The first part of the course looked as if it had been run with tractors, and the officials decided to start the runs 500 meters below this area at the 1,000-meter mark and, if necessary, to limit the championships to one, two or three runs instead of the customary four.

The beginning of the meet was postponed one day, two days while work was done on the piste. The starting times were changed from 6:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. so that workmen could hose the ice all night, building up what the day's sun had washed down the course. The world's longest shower curtain was strung along the course to shade it but that did not help, for the ice was not bonding properly to the concrete walls. Worse yet, serious faults in the construction of the course began to show up when practice was resumed—the inruns and outruns were mysteriously wrong. The committeemen listened to the complaints and said, "�a ira," which means, "It will go."

At one high point, during dinner, one of the Swiss sledders burst into the Ours Blanc Hotel. "I can't stand it," he cried. "I absolutely cannot stand it. There are 11 men up there working on the course and five of them are drunk, waving wine bottles and singing."

But the reaction was calm. "Six out of 11 sober," one bobsledder shrugged, "is not a bad average for any country. Don't worry about it. This run is so bad that nothing else can hurt it."

With revolt smoldering all over the village, Francois Missoffe, the French Minister of Sport, made a run on the course himself, a move he figured might help calm the storm. Missoffe is a tall, angular man who will do anything for his office—like Bobby Kennedy running a river or Stewart Udall climbing a mountain—and he strapped on the crash helmet with a look of cold dedication. The French four-man bobsled team sandwiched him in behind the driver, and they pushed away.

"It is a splendid run," said Missoffe at breakfast. "On the Vercors curve you go up very, very high. I started out looking ahead, over the driver's shoulder. But when I saw that one coming, I just closed my eyes. It is the first time I am ever inside a bobsled. Next I am going to parachute into the snow. It is a new sport for French skiers." And would he also go off the new 90-meter ski jump at St. Nizier to convince the world it was all right? "The jump is all right," he said. "Don't worry about it."

But the bobsledders remained unconvinced. "It doesn't cut any ice with me," growled one American, his best line of the week.

Meanwhile, with practice dashes, the course grew more rutted and bumpier. French soldiers assigned to maintain the track would leap into the trench and disguise the ruts with a chill, pasty mixture of snow and ice, like vanilla frosting. Flashing by on a trial run, Italy's Monti hit one of the gouges and set the new course record for freestyle flying, landing on one runner and barely under control. In a few minutes he came walking back up the course and said calmly, "I didn't see that rut. It was hidden." He took an ax from a soldier and swung at the wall, chipping the frosting away. "There," he said, "the course it is fixed."

Monti, who is 39 years old and nine-time world bobsled champion, may be the toughest man in the sport. In a memorable smashup in 1958 at St. Moritz, he was dragged down the course under his sled and emerged battered and scraped beyond recognition. At Alpe d'Huez, he explained, "It is really me. I have got a new face since then."

Great Britain's Tony Nash, reigning Olympic two-man champion, showed up with his original face—but wore it twisted into a look of contempt.

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