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Going into Sunday morning's final heat of the Olympic four-man bobsled event, Brent Rushlaw, the glowering, mustachioed blue-collar bobber from Saranac Lake, N.Y., was somewhere nobody expected him to be: in sixth place and still very much in contention for a medal. Standing at the top of the track at Calgary's Canada Olympic Park, he grabbed the side of his sled, gave a grunt and then pushed off. It was a typical Rushlaw start—not a great one, but not terrible, either. The guy is 36 years old, after all, and this was his fourth Olympics.
Once in the driver's seat, Rushlaw summoned up all those years of experience and drove a perfect race—low in all the turns, straight as an arrow through the Kreisel, the most dramatic curve on the track. His time of 57.20 was faster than those of both drivers before him and would turn out to be the best in the fourth round. Now all he had to do—all he could do—was wait.
The sun was beating down, melting the ice and making the track slower and slower. GDR II came down and couldn't catch Rushlaw. Both Austrian sleds, which had been barely ahead of him going into the last run, fell behind. Suddenly there was only one sled left—USSR II—and Rushlaw was still in third place overall.
The Soviet sled driven by Janis Kipurs equaled the fastest start time of the day and was fast through the upper third of the course. But as it neared the bottom it began to slow down dramatically, though, for Rushlaw, not quite enough. When Kipurs drove over the finish line, he was ahead of Rushlaw for the bronze medal by .02 of a second. At 75 mph, that's about the length of five beer cans, which is a fitting yardstick considering that Rushlaw is renowned for guzzling suds. The fourth-place finish was still the best by a U.S. sled since the American four-man bob got the bronze at Cortina in 1956. "We'll get 'em in four years," said Rushlaw.
Rushlaw's near miracle shifted the bobsledding focus away from what had been a circus on ice. Earlier in the week some gritty performances by veteran drivers from the Soviet Union, East Germany and Switzerland had been overshadowed by several comic—nearly tragic—performances by sliders from such bobsledding meccas as the Virgin Islands, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Portugal, Taiwan and Jamaica. The field was so crowded with Sunday afternoon sliders, in fact, that the sluggos staged their own competition at the bottom of the standings.
Some purists found this a shameful turn of events. "If I were a bobsled athlete, I'd be really ticked off that there were 10 or 15 sleds basically chewing up the track," said Abby Hoffman, director general of Sport Canada, the federal agency that oversees amateur sports. "When half the countries competing are within 10 degrees of the equator, something's wrong."
Hoffman might have been off by a degree or two, but the fans didn't care. They liked these crazies. Whenever a Soviet or East German sled came whooshing down the track, holding a perfect line, half the crowd was off buying hot dogs on a stick and a can of Blue. But when sliders from the tropics were on the course, the wall of humanity was 10 deep at trackside, everyone hootin', hollerin' and havin' a hell of a time. Up, down and up the curves went the Mexicans. Bang, bang, bang went the Portuguese. Wheeeee!
The king of the Booby Derby was Prince Albert of Monaco. An unassuming guy, he walked around the Olympic Village introducing himself to female athletes with a simple, "Hi, I'm Albert." Like we didn't know. Albert's sled swooned in his presence, too, and his team placed 25th out of 41 in the two-man event. His was the best bobsled finish ever for Monaco, but His Serene Highness said he hopes to improve on it four years hence in Albertville. That's a town in France that, despite what its name might indicate, he does not own.
Nearly as popular as Prince Albert in the can was the Jamaican team, which underwrote its trip to the Olympics by selling ultracool sweatshirts and which had its own reggae theme song that went, in part, "We be trainin', gainin', strainin' and painin', but we ain't complainin'/Jamaica bobsled, ragamuffin, Jamaica bobsled, we ruff n tuff'n/Everything cool, mon."
When asked about his team's newfound celebrity, Jamaican driver Dudley Stokes said, "I don't know why the people like us so much. It's not something I should talk about." But one female spectator who had met the Jamaicans shed some light: "They have a great sense of humor and are good dancers."