East Germans dominate on the bobsleigh track
East Germany had emerged as the dominant force in the luge and bobsleigh at the Sapporo Games in 1972 – and the peak of its brilliance arguably came four years later at Innsbruck, where the country’s male and female teams enjoyed a clean sweep of all the gold medals in both sports. In one 24-hour spell GDR athletes claimed 10 medals in 24 hours. Indeed, the GDR team won all but three of the medals available.
Bobsleighs were adapted from delivery boys’ sleds in the late 19th century by lashing together two toboggans to create a sport for the adventurous and wealthy, with the first club formed in the Swiss mountain resort of St Moritz. They differ from luge sleds in that they have brakes – though using them means instant disqualification.
The driver of the two-man or four-man sled steers using nylon cords connected to the front runners, and teams make four runs down narrow, twisting, banked, iced tracks in a gravity-powered sled.
Times are combined to calculate the final score, and in both events, teams can push their sleds for as long as they want – completing the first 50m in under five seconds was, at the time, crucial for winning medals in bobsleigh racing.
Hitting the brakes down clearly wasn’t an option for the East German two-man and four-man teams competing at the Olympic Sliding Centre in Innsbruck. The big story of 1975, and then 1976, was the emergence of the country as the leading force in bobsleigh – a position it would cling to until Germany’s reunification in 1990.
Armed with a naturally talented driver in converted javelin thrower Meinhard Nehmer and the best sports science the country could provide – a team had filmed and carefully analysed the bobsleigh track during preparations for the Games in 1975 – East Germany slid from nowhere to become world-beaters in three years, triumphing over much-fancied veteran Wolfgang Zimmerer and his West German team.
Nehmer’s adoption of the bobsleigh after previously competing in a different sport also gives a clue to the GDR’s emergence as bobsleigh kings.
Brakesman Bernhard Germeshausen had trialled for the country’s decathlon squad for the 1972 Olympic Games, while the four-man squad included a national weightlifting champion. It was the perfect combination of hoist and bulk, and proved crucial in securing the two surprise golds.
Nations were allowed two entries in each race for the thrilling, dangerous runs on the partially refrigerated, cut-price 1,200m Igls track – which had been criticised by some as being too easy, despite its 14 curves and hair-raising 8.5 per cent gradients. Pundits tipped gold medals for the US, West Germany and Switzerland.
In the two-man race Nehmer – who went on to coach the US bobsleigh team in 1992, despite speaking no English – triumphed with Germeshausen in 3:44.42. The pair came from behind to shade victory over Zimmerer, considered the best driver in the world, and Manfred Schumann.
Jochen Babock and Bernhard Lehmann joined them in the four-man race, completing the run in an average time of 3:40.43 – winning, as is typical in the sport, by mere hundredths of a second.
Nehmer became only the third driver in Olympic history to win gold in the two- and four-man events. He and Germeshausen went on to take gold in the four-man race in Lake Placid in 1980, while the duo raced against each other in separate GDR teams in the two-man event – Germeshausen taking silver and his teammates bronze