Gone are the rowdy and raucous ol' days of American bobsledding, when the reigning sliders climbed from their sleds and potbellied up to the bar for their favorite physical exercise—the elbow bend, unlimited repetitions.
"Those days are over," says John Morgan, a former bobsledder who serves as ABC-TV's Olympic commentator for the sport. "With the old school, it was, 'Heave-ho, away we go let's have a drink and talk about what we just did.' In the new school it's. 'Heave-ho, away we go—to the weight room.' "
Vanished, too, is a simpler era when U.S. sliders bought sleds from Italy, tinkered with them a little in a garage, then raced them basically unchanged. "Like the America's Cup, bobsledding has gone high-tech," says Morgan.
And gone—but not forgotten—is that time when the U.S. bobsled federation, unable to attract a major sponsor, was so poor that it could barely rub two bobs together. Today, Pan Am flies the U.S. team's equipment and personnel to events. Lederle Laboratories pitches in some $80,000 a year and. most recently, the House of Sampoerna, an Indonesian importing firm, became the sport's chief sponsor in America when it agreed to donate approximately $700,000 over the next two years. (The company's owner fell in love with the sport last year while vacationing in Saint Moritz Switzerland.) And. of course, there was the $1.3 million that the U.S. Olympic Committee gave the federation out of the $215 million surplus from the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
No one slider more perfectly reflects the changes in the American sport than Matt Roy, the 27-year-old, straight-arrow real estate entrepreneur from Lake Placid. N.Y. Roy, driver of both a two-man and a four-man bob, is the nation's main hope for a medal at next year's Winter Olympics in Calgary. (The last American slider to win an Olympic medal was Arthur Tyler, who took the bronze in the four-man bob at the 1956 games in Cortina, Italy.)
This weekend at Calgary, if he performs as expected, Roy will win the World Cup in the four-man event as well as the trophy awarded to the bobsledder who has accumulated the most combined points in the two-and four-man events. The Calgary competition is the last stop of the 1986-87 World Cup, a series that, beginning last December, traveled to seven different courses in Europe and North America.
On Sunday, after finishing 10th to East Germany's Wolfgang Hoppe at Calgary in the final two-man event of the season. Roy wound up second in total two-man World Cup points. But in the four-man Roy is so far ahead of Hoppe that the East German would have to finish 19 places ahead of him this weekend to win.
Winning the World Cup competition does not mean that Roy is the best slider in the world—the top teams. Switzerland. East Germany and the Soviet Union, did not compete in all the Cup events. But last month on Lake Placid's treacherous 1,600-meter course. Roy's four-man team broke the old course record of 58.99 seconds on each of four runs, an unheard-of feat. Their combined time over the four heats. 3:55.49, shattered the old mark by almost two seconds That performance was clear testament to a new era in American bobsledding There has never been a major American four-man crew of such exceptional athletic talent and in such keen physical condition.
Switzerland and East Germany have dominated world bobsledding partly because their teams are loaded with fast, strong runners. Years ago, conventional wisdom dictated that pushers be weight-lifters, but no longer. "Today we generally look for sprinters." says Werner Delle-Karth, a former Austrian slider who now coaches for Canada. The East Germans tend to recruit decathletes for the bobsled.
A few years back, in its search for better athletes, the U.S. federation devised an eight-point skills test on which a bobsledder must score a minimum number of points to be eligible for the team. At the start of a race a sled can be pushed as much as 65 meters before the crew jumps on board, so the test involves running, jumping and strength events.