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02 Feb 1980
Lake Placid 1980 , Bobsleigh , Switzerland

Olympic obsession pays off for ruthless Schärer in the bob

Any Olympic athlete will admit that to win gold takes a certain amount of ruthlessness, whether it be sticking rigidly to a training regime at the expense of one’s personal life or setting aside friendships with rivals once competition is underway.

In 1980, Swiss bobsledder Erich Schärer had to take perhaps the most ruthless of all decisions two days ahead of the two-man bobsleigh final at Lake Placid, by informing his own brother he was to be replaced.

It was a tough call. The relationship between the pilot, who steers the sled, and the brakeman, who pushes and slows it, is one of the most intuitive and crucial pairings in sport, and can mean the difference between success and failure.

Schärer, a 32-year-old real estate broker from Zurich, was obsessed with winning Olympic gold, having been crowned world four-man champion that year and two-man champion the previous two years.

“All he wants to do is win the Olympic Games,” his mechanic Fredi Wehrli told the New York Times. “All his training points to that. World Championships, European Championships – they mean nothing.” 

Despite having already achieved so much in his sport, Schärer was completely driven in his pursuit of Olympic success. As part of a four-man team that also included brother Peter, he had won World Championship gold medals in 1971, 1973 and 1975, as well as two-man titles in 1978 and 1979. Switzerland had collected a silver and bronze at Innsbruck – quite an achievement, given the domination of bobsleigh and luge by East Germany. But it wasn’t Olympic gold.

Peter had been slated to race with Erich at Lake Placid, but was replaced by another talented brakeman, Josef Benz, with whom Erich had raced on and off throughout the 1970s.

The two-day contest in Lake Placid kicked off on a breezy, sunny day, with 20 sleds from 10 countries competing on a treacherous, bumpy track that was to prove too much even for East German luge champion Dettlef Günther, who failed to medal after a spectacular spill. Each pair would complete two runs each day, with their total timed deciding the winner.

Schärer and Benz pair recorded a world record time of 1:01.87 in their first run on the 1,557m track at Mount van Hoevenberg, marking the first time any pair had covered an Olympic bobsleigh track in under 1:02. Overall, Schärer and Benz led with a two-lap time of 2:04.63, ahead of East German double Olympic gold legend Meinhard Nehmer, who was defending his two and four-man titles from 1976.

By the end of the two days Schärer’s tricky decision had been vindicated, after he and his partner collected the gold medal he had set his eyes on. Their total time was 4:09.36.

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