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Original Issue

Spies That Slide

The East German-Swiss rivalry is redolent of cold war fiction

It was raining and foggy in mid-November as the World Cup bobsled competitions got under way in Winterberg, West Germany. Dusk set in early, and in the uncertain light the run looked like a greenish snake curling down the mountain. Up at the start of the serpentine track, the bobs were lying about, some belly-up, some on their sides. Many were shrouded in blankets, with only their shiny steel runners showing. There were guards around the sleds—coaches, mostly, and team officials, but in some cases, competitors. From time to time, one or another of the guards would stroll into the vicinity of another team's sled and stare hard into an opening in the blankets. From time to time, one or another would hunch over the runners of a rival bob and study the steel with suspicious, squinting eyes.

This was spying, pure and simple, a revered tradition among those involved with the arcane technology of bobsleds. An infinitesimal mechanical advantage can make the difference between a winning and a losing sled, and the snoops at Winterberg were hoping to catch a glimpse or a hint or a suggestion of a gadget or an idea that an opposing team may have come up with since last season. It was a tense, watchful scene, worthy of a good suspense-filled cold war espionage movie.

And that was fitting, for nowhere is the war of the sleds colder than between the sport's two superpowers, Switzerland and East Germany. In the dim November light, the Swiss coach. Erich Schärer, was nonetheless highly visible in his red parka and red stocking cap as he crouched to study the runners on an East German machine. A few yards away, Herr Dr. Rainer Eichhorn, an engineer from Spezialtechnik Dresden, which builds East Germany's bobs, snapped pictures of the Swiss sleds with his Praktica camera and made notes in a little book. And down the track, at a crucial curve, the East German coach. Horst Hörnlein, had stationed himself so he could study the lines that the fastest drivers, especially the Swiss, were taking.

One never knows when something will come of all this intense scrutiny. For example, in the 1986 World Cup meet at Winterberg, Schärer had caught the East Germans in what he considered to be an illegal situation.

They had just arrived with new sleds for the new season when Schärer's spying eyes discovered that their rear axles consisted of two pieces, instead of the conventional one piece, each supporting a rear runner and mounted directly on the chassis. At the time, the rules of the Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing specified only that the front axle had to consist of one continuous piece. But Schärer cried foul anyway. "This had great advantages." he says now. "It meant that the sled could take the corner going into the curve better. Those that had rigid axles could not do that. Nobody else objected, but as a coach, I just had to object."

"We had nothing to reproach ourselves about," says Hörnlein calmly. "There had been a technical inspection, and the commission told me they couldn't find anything that violated the rules. If our engineers see loopholes in the rules and make use of them, who could fault them?"

But Schärer kept complaining that the East Germans had an "unfair advantage." Ultimately, he persuaded other bobsled teams to join in a formal written protest to the federation. The federation let the East Germans race with their two-piece rear axle at Winterberg. but by the time the world championships were to start at St. Moritz in January, officials had outlawed the axle.

That meant that Spezialtechnik had to rebuild the East German bobs in a hurry. And just as hurriedly, the East German drivers had to adapt to the change. They were furious. Wolfgang Hoppe, 30, the top East German driver, who has twice been world champion—as well as Olympic champion in both the two-man and four-man competitions in 1984—says, "We had exactly three weeks to get ready for the world championships. If you bring something new to the sport, you are a thorn in your competitors' eyes—to be precise, in Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer's eyes. He played a dirty trick on us. But, in fact, the only thing he achieved was that we lost training while the axle was being changed."

The East Germans may have lost more than time because of Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer's complaint: They also lost the gold medals at the "87 worlds. Hoppe, who's widely considered the best bob driver alive, was twice beaten by the Swiss, finishing second to Ralph Pichler in the two-man event and to Hans Hiltebrand in the four-man competition. The East Germans tried to retaliate in kind by lodging a protest in which they pointed out that Pichler's runners had a suspicious yellowish color—perhaps because they had been treated with an illegal substance to make them go faster? In fact, it's a common—though illegal—practice among sledders to coat their runners with silicone, which is what the East Germans probably thought Pichler was using on his runners. It's also a common—and quite legal—practice to heat the steel runners to harden them, though they must have cooled before the sled takes a trip down the run. The heating process can discolor the metal, and that is probably what happened in Pichler's case because 'when the jury inspected the Swiss sledder's runners, it found nothing wrong. For his part, Pichler had not gone out of his way to clean the runners after heating them, and for a good reason.

"It's psychological warfare," says Pichler, 33, who was also world champion in 1983. "I had wiped my runners with acetone but left some of the color on the sides to make them nervous. We always watch each other closely. Everybody is always trying to gain an advantage. It's a historical fact."

Of course, if one examines the real historical facts, the Swiss had the advantage in bobsledding at the start. The first structured toboggan run was built in 1884 in St. Moritz, and soon thereafter a local blacksmith named Christian Mathis built a runner-mounted "bobbing sleigh," so called because sledders would get it started down the run by bobbing back and forth. Around 1900, Carl Benzing, a textile merchant from Friedrichroda, which is now in East Germany, visited the St. Moritz run, became fascinated with the sport and returned home to build a bob of steel that he called Black Peter.

Black Peter notwithstanding, East Germany really came very late to modern bobsledding. Its first refrigerated run was completed in 1970 in Oberhof, but when the country formed a national team, there wasn't even a noted bobsledder around to recruit as coach. So Hörnlein, who had won a gold medal in the luge at the '72 Olympics, was made bobsled coach in "73. "The only thing the two sports have in common is that you try to get down an icy chute as fast as possible," he says.

When the first East German team turned up at a world championship, in 1975, it brought with it sleds that were of a standard design. The inexperienced East Germans' best was fifth place in both the two-and four-man events. The following year, however, at the Innsbruck Olympics, the East Germans bobs were revolutionary—sleeker and more aerodynamic than those of other countries, and its sledders weren't the paunchy, fun-loving beerswillers of yesteryear, but muscular athletes, some of them former track and field performers, who could run a 30-meter sprint while pushing a heavy sled to the starting line. The start had become the key to success in bobsledding.

Schärer was of this new breed, too. At the 1975 world championships, he won his third gold medal in the four-man. Switzerland's main rivals were West Germany. Italy and Austria. But a new era was about to begin.

At the '76 Olympics the East German bobs were the best anybody had ever seen. John Morgan, a former U.S. sledder, says. "They not only had the best-looking sleds, they also had the best-looking athletes. They went about their business with unsmiling faces; the other sledders called them "the robots.' "

And the robots took charge. Meinhard Nehmer, a taciturn army sergeant, won two Olympic gold medals as driver of both a two-and four-man bob. Schärer had to settle for a silver in the four-man and a bronze in the two-man event. No other Swiss driver came close to winning a medal. Losing was bad enough, but what really rankled the Swiss was the fact that the East German sledders had a huge, superbly run organization behind them, totally subsidized by the state. By contrast, Swiss sledders were left to their own resources, both organizationally and financially. "It was professionals against amateurs," Schärer says.

And so it was. Year after year, the East Germans would appear on the bob runs of Europe and North America with ever more sophisticated sleds constructed by the engineers at Spezialtechnik in conjunction with the research laboratories of the Technical University of Dresden. Schärer and his teammates bought production-line sleds from Italian bob builders, then each sledder would completely rebuild his own bob to make it faster.

Hiltebrand, at 42 the oldest among the world-class sledders and twice a world champion, says, "The East Germans can train all year. They don't have to worry about making a living or buying their own equipment. They only have to drive well. I have to be in my shop, selling electrical appliances. I work on my sleds in my spare time." Not surprisingly, the East Germans also came up with the sport's big innovations—like an independent suspension system, better steering mechanisms and the two-part rear axle—although in 1977 the crafty Hiltebrand won a gold medal in the two-man world championship by attaching Teflon strips to his runners. Teflon was outlawed shortly thereafter.

Only the Swiss were ingenious enough to stay close to the East German engineers. A revolutionary bob was built by the Opel auto works in West Germany, but it turned out to be too dangerous to drive. In the U.S., Lederle Laboratories poured $250,000 into a sled that looked like a rocket—and often crashed like one. Such was the superiority of the two supersled powers, that of the 18 medals awarded in the last three Olympics, 10 went to East Germany (including five of six golds) and five went to Switzerland. Two medals were won by West Germany and one by the U.S.S.R.

The international federation tried hard to halt this expensive technological race. But when it introduced new restrictions, Spezialtechnik would just come up with new gadgets that weren't outlawed, and the Swiss, working alone in their garages, kept souping up their machines in a similar manner.

That didn't stop the also-rans from trying—especially the Soviets. In the season leading to the 1984 Olympics at Sarajevo, the glamour sled on the World Cup circuit was a red Soviet machine, so sleek and slender that it was called the "cigar." The Soviets were clocking spectacular times in it—when it stayed upright. Sch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürer, who was still competing then, told one Russian engineer, "I'll give you my Mercedes for one of your sleds." To which the engineer replied, "No, one of those costs many Mercedeses."

So the Swiss hurriedly had their own slim sleds designed and built. When Schärer finally drove his two-man cigar down a run, in Innsbruck, he performed the most spectacular somersault of his career. As a result, his brakeman, Max Ruegg. refused to get into the sled again.

By the time the Games actually got under way in Sarajevo, nobody but the Soviets dared climb into a cigar. And the Soviets did it only because they had no choice. The cigar was the only kind of sled they had. The East Germans, who had ignored the cigar craze, cleaned up: two gold medals for Hoppe and two silvers for his fellow driver, Bernhard Lehmann. The U.S.S.R. won a bronze, as did the Swiss. True to form, the next summer the international federation outlawed anything resembling a cigar.

Now the teams are gearing up for Calgary. In that World Cup race in November in Winterberg, no new gadgets were discovered, despite the best efforts of spooks and sleuths. Hoppe won the two-man competition and an Austrian sled driven by Ingo Appelt won the four-man event.

"This year our sleds were built precisely according to the rules," Hörnlein assured everyone. "Nobody should say that we knowingly violate the rules."

"But you can't see everything," retorted Pichler of Switzerland.

"The situation will only be entirely fair for all when every competitor can buy sleds from Spezialtechnik," said Schärer.

You can bet your antique Flexible Flyer that it will be a cold day in the cold war of the bobsled before that happens—if for no other reason than this: What fun would it be if no one had anyone to spy on?