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.
Mason was a track and football athlete at Bowdoin in the early 1920s, and after college he went to Europe for postgraduate study. In '27 he was living in Freiburg, Germany with his wife, Sarah, and two children while attending the university there.
"One day in November," he says, "I was reading the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune, and on the sports page, Sparrow Robertson mentioned in his column that the U.S. was organizing a bobsled team for the 1928 Winter Games. He noted that they had the necessary drivers and brakemen but that they still needed a few men to fill out the middle of the sleighs. Robertson indicated that any Americans interested could write to him, and he would pass inquiries on to the team organizers. I'd never thought about being on an Olympic team, but when I saw this I figured I had nothing to lose, so why not try."
Mason did write Robertson and soon received a response from the organizers. In time he was invited to join the bobsled team in St. Moritz. No tests, no training, no trials; he was a mail-order Olympian. "I didn't know what I was getting into, so the idea was to go to St. Moritz and have a good time," Mason says.
Mason's lack of knowledge about the sport wasn't surprising. At that time in the U.S., sleds were for kids to take out on hills in winter. Competitive sledding was limited to the alpine spas of Europe, where it began in the late 19th century as an exercise in derring-do among the wealthy—women as well as men. Bobsledding is believed to have originated in Switzerland in 1888, when Wilson Smith, an Englishman, connected two sleighs with a board and slid downhill one mile from St. Moritz to Celerina. That crude vehicle was improved, and the first organized competition was staged in St. Moritz in 1898 on the Cresta Run, which had been devised for one-man tobogganing and wasn't really suited for faster-moving bobsleds. A separate run for bobsleds, built there in 1903, is considered the world's first.
By 1923 the sport had become popular enough to warrant the formation of the International Federation of Bobsleigh and Toboggan, which sponsored its first championship a year later in conjunction with other winter sports events in Chamonix, France. A Swiss four-man sled won. No U.S. team had entered. In 1926 the International Olympic Committee, reviewing the success of the 1924 championships, elected to call them the first Winter Olympics.
As the '28 Games approached, U.S. bobsledders were doing so well at St. Moritz that they were among the favorites, a fact of which Mason was totally unaware. "This was simply a chance for me to be an Olympic team member," he recalls.
After traveling all day by train from Freiburg, Mason arrived in St. Moritz at 10 p.m. on Feb. 1 and, suitcase in hand, trudged from the station to the Palace Hotel, where the U.S. team was staying. There was no room for him, so Mason was sent off to the Grand Hotel next door; he was to spend his time lodged with the Canadian hockey team. "I went back to the Palace in the morning to meet my teammates for the first time," he says. "But I was told they wouldn't be practicing. I was instructed to fill in with the Polish team instead. They were very pleasant and accommodating, they taught me how to ride the sleigh, and we had a fine day, successfully completing three runs."
Mason joined the U.S. team on Feb. 3. The driver was a precocious 16-year-old named Billy Fiske, son of the manager of the Paris office of Dillon Read, the American brokerage firm. Fiske had already been accepted for admission to Cambridge University. (In 1940, he became one of the first Americans to die in World War II. He was fatally injured when the RAF fighter he was flying crashed while landing.)
The man assigned the No. 2 position on the Fiske sled was Nion Tocker, a California journalist, who, like Mason, was a walk-on. Mason, who had the broadest athletic background in the group, was put in the No. 3 position. In No. 4 was songwriter Clifford (Tippy) Grey. With Fiske, he would win a second gold medal four years later at Lake Placid, but he is better known for writing such hits as If You Were the Only Girl in the World and Got a Date with an Angel. The brake-man was Richard A. (Ned) Parke, a veteran of the St. Moritz racing and social scene, who lived in Paris.