Like father, like son for Britain's bobsledders
Great Britain's George Johnston is trying to have his photograph taken without laughing. A constant barrage of good-natured ribbing from his father, Lee, prevents the Team GB flag bearer and monobob favourite from keeping a straight face.
This is a typical embarrassing dad situation, but with a twist. George, 17, is the world number-one-ranked junior monobob racer; Lee Johnston is Great Britain’s bobsleigh coach. Lee was an accomplished bobsledder, competing at three Olympic Winter Games between 1998 and 2006.
“Away from the track we are father and son, but around it, we are coach and athlete,” said George, from Taunton, after the photo session. “Dad has passed down so much advice to me. The main thing is to push hard and drive soft, and to be as calm as possible in the sled.”
As with any family connection in sport, shutting down any possible allegation of nepotism is crucial for the Johnstons. “When George showed an interest in bobsleigh, I said to him that he would need to prove beyond doubt why he was in the squad,” said Lee. “He has done that. From all the tests we’ve done, he has proved himself the best athletically, and he is now ranked number one.
“Obviously, I spend more time with George than I do with some athletes that I coach, because at home I help him train, sprint and lift. And, of course, we have father-and-son time. But I try to keep a fair distance at events like this.”
Lee understandably inspired his son with his Olympic heroics at Nagano 1998, Salt Lake City 2002 and Torino 2006. “It was amazing growing up watching my dad on TV,” said George.
“I watched all his races, and we went to the Olympics in Torino for the four-man event in 2006. After the race, he picked me and my younger brother out of the crowd and carried us over to the finishing area. His best moment was getting a fifth place in the [2007 FIBT] world championship in St Moritz. It became something I wanted to do.”
YIS / IOC Jon Buckle
The pair now trains at the simulated push facility at the University of Bath. “Getting into a bobsleigh for the first time is quite weird,” said George. “You are nervous, excited, shaking with adrenaline. But the more you get used to it, the more you love it.
“I’d like to get to the very top. At the moment we’ve got a strong men’s programme, but I’ve started young and it’d be really good if I could keep progressing. I’d love to make the senior team, then aim for Beijing 2022 [Olympic Winter Games].”
Lee came from a different generation of bob athletes. “It was a very military-related sport back then,” he said. “I served 22 years in the Royal Marines, and that’s how I got into it. I loved the adrenaline, the speed, the pressure, the camaraderie. I was strong, quick and powerful.
“George was born into it. He arrived in 1998, a few years after I started the sport. But I wasn’t a pushy dad. I’ve helped him train through his whole life but I’ve left him to make his own choices. He has chosen to do it and has a real talent.
“It is a competitive, strong sport in Britain now. We are now cherry picking top athletes to be in the senior squad. We have Mark Lewis-Francis, who has a 4x100m gold medal from Athens 2004.
“We are very start-orientated, because that’s the crux to being a good bobsledder. George is 193cm and 89kg aged 17, so he has the right physique to become a very fine senior athlete.”
Monobob is a new discipline, making its international debut at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games. Lee describes himself as an “old school bobsledder” and prefers the teamwork element of the more traditional two- and four-man sleds, but recognises that the event has provided younger athletes with some very real benefits.
“Monobob is great, because the driving age in two man used to be 18, and they couldn’t lower it due to health and safety reasons,” said George. “As a driver, you can potentially injure someone in the back, and monobob gives you the chance to learn to drive earlier without putting anyone else at risk. That’s great experience for me, but I’ll eventually shift back to two man.”
For now, the target is gold in Lillehammer, before trying to emulate, and hopefully surpass, his dad on the senior stage. The bad news for rivals of the Johnstons? George’s 12-year-old brother Harry is already getting interested in the sport.
Written by YIS / IOC NICK MOORE
Nick Moore is a reporter for the Lillehammer Youth Information Service ‘YIS’. A sports and music journalist with 20 years of experience, he covered the London 2012 Olympic Games and the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games. Based in the UK, he has written for numerous titles including FourFourTwo, The Independent, Q and The Times.