SI Vault
Phil Johnson
February 27, 1984
Most Olympic champions are the products of years of training and, often, sacrifice. But not all—certainly not Geoffrey T. Mason. In 1928 he was in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. Nineteen days after he first saw a bobsled, he won a gold medal as a member of the victorious U.S. five-man team in the second Winter Games at St. Moritz.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 27, 1984

'you Say You'd Like To Be An Olympic Bobsledder? Just Drop A Line To...'

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

The sled belonged to Fiske. It was called Satan, and each of the five riders wore a single letter on the back of his yellow turtleneck racing sweater, spelling out the name of the sled. Not until the Games began did Mason and the others don Olympic-issue outfits. The sled was repainted and rechristened USA II.

Pre-Games training consisted of races against the other Olympic sleds. The Fiske team, along with the second American entry, which featured the Heaton brothers, John and Jennison, of New York City, did well in those events and were the favorites of the trackside bettors. They were consistently among the top three finishers in the field of 25 sleds from 15 countries.

At each start Fiske would be on the sled, prone, ready to steer. The other four would climb aboard shingle fashion. As No. 3, Mason cushioned the weight of the two men in back, who bobbed while the sled was on the course. Bobbing was a maneuver designed to increase speed. Done correctly, it could make a sled jump forward. On Mason's sled, the men would lie almost prone until given the order to bob up by the brakeman. The maneuver was repeated on command by the brakeman. "We were the only sled with two men bobbing," Mason said. "All the others had just the brakeman bob, and then only on the straights. Parke bobbed all the way down, even in the curves." (The practice was virtually discontinued after World War II with the advent of fiber-glass sleds, which made the maneuver unnecessary.)

The Games opened on Feb. 11, with 495 athletes assembled for ceremonies held in a snowstorm. But by the end of the day, the weather had changed drastically. "We came to St. Moritz to play hockey, not water polo," said a Canadian player. "The Swiss ice, like the cheese of that country, has holes in it," observed one journalist.

Late in the week the temperature dropped, and because the bobsled event was the last on the schedule, it could be salvaged. Even then, things didn't come off as planned. It rained the first day of the bobsled competition, Feb. 18, and racing was canceled. A decision was made to determine the gold medal winner on the basis of just two runs rather than the scheduled four, to be held the next day. (That decision was controversial both before and after the races. Under similar circumstances in '32 at Lake Placid, the third and fourth runs in the four-man bobsled competition were held the day after the Olympics had formally ended.)

"We were lucky," Mason remembers. "We drew a starting position toward the end of the first heat, which gave us the advantage of a well-set track. We were the leaders at the end of the first round with more than a two-second edge over the second-place team." The run was soft from rain that had fallen on the previous day, and times were a full 10 seconds slower than the record for the course. "We were a bit slower on the second run," he says, "but there was nothing more we could do. We just waited at the bottom and listened for the other times."

Luckily for Mason and his teammates, most of the other sleds were slower, too. Only the second U.S. sled had a faster time, but when combined with its 10th-place standing after the first heat, it was good enough only for second place, half a second off the pace of the Fiske sled. A German sled was third.

Mason had his gold medal. The first stop for the new Olympic champion was the stadium. There was no victory stand and no draping of medals about the victors' necks. "We just stood around and mingled as the flags were raised," says Mason. "My medal was handed to me in a box by a bobsled official as I stood there in the crowd. All he said, as I recall, was 'Here, Mason, here's your medal.' "

The gold medal wasn't the only trophy Mason claimed that day. As the ceremony was ending, the wife of one of his Canadian friends asked if he planned to take the American flag that just then was being lowered. "It hadn't occurred to me," he says. "But her husband at that moment was beneath the platform getting the Canadian flag that had been raised for the hockey team, so I went there, too." Mason returned to his hotel with the gold medal in his pocket and the American flag raised for the bobsled team tucked under his sweater.

When the bobsled events were over, so were the Games. Mason left St. Moritz the next day. He settled his hotel bill, much of which he had to pay himself, walked down to the train station, bought a ticket, and left for Freiburg.

Continue Story
1 2 3
Related Topics
Geoffrey Mason 1 0 0
St. Moritz 36 0 0
Billy Fiske 2 0 0
United States 8021 0 232
Winter Olympics 281 0 43