Hoppe steers savvy East German bobsleighers to victory
East Germany’s fearless bobsleigh stars dominated the competition on Mount Trebovic at the Sarajevo Games in 1984, with former army major Wolfgang Hoppe leading his country to victory in the two and four-man races.
East Germany was the dominant force in the Luge and Bobsleigh throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, thanks to a combination of up-to-the-minute performance analysis, use of sports science to modify techniques, tough training sessions and extensive practice sessions on Olympic runs ahead of the Games.
The GDR team stayed trued to this winning formula in 1984, even bowing out of the 1983 World Championships to spend as much time as possible learning the layout and pitfalls of the Sarajevo track. Aerodynamic advances in sled design and new suspension systems also promised to set them even further ahead of their rivals.
However, the highly-fancied Swiss team enjoyed the same advantages, and a Soviet squad bent on winning a gold medal posed a threat with their radical new bullet-shaped sleds, in which they had recently won the World Championships.
Shorter and narrower than the conventional European models, the USSR sled gave their teams an enormous advantage at the push start. But the Russians were held back by the inexperience of their drivers – a drawback that the East Germans had never suffered.
At the 1984 Games, Hoppe followed in the tracks of celebrated countrymen such as Meinhard Nehmer. With Dieter Schauerhammer he steered his way to victory in the two-man event with a total time of 3.25.56, pipping fellow GDR pairing Bernard Lehmann and former shot-putter Bogdan Musiol to second place.
The USSR team’s lack of savvy meant they failed to break the East Germans’ grip on the competition, though they emerged with a creditable bronze.
In the four-man event the pair were joined by Roland Wetzig and Andreas Kirchner – and sped to another gold medal with a time of 3:20.22, beat Lehmann and Musiol again, along with their teammates Ingo Voge and Eberhard Weise. The Swiss finished in third-place.
After the Sarajevo Games, the design of sleds was standardised in order to emphasise the skill of the drivers and pushers. Four years later Hoppe added to his two gold medals with two silvers in Calgary.
In the two-man event he produced the fastest time in the first run – but fell to eight position after the second. Incensed, Hoppe blamed sand and dirt on the run caused by warm weather and strong winds – a complaint with which many of his rivals agreed.
The third run was cancelled, but when the competition resumed Hoppe was unable to make up ground and came second to Latvian racers Janis Kipurs and Vladimir Kozlov, competing for the USSR.
Hoppe went on to win another silver in the four-man at Albertville in 1992 – where he was flagbearer at the opening ceremony for the newly reunified Germany. And he collected a sixth medal, a bronze at Lillehammer in 1994, making him the only athlete to win medals at four Winter Olympics, along with 36 medals from international competition. He retired in 1997.