Bobbing and weaving their way to glory
Back in 1992 Jeff Pamplin was as bemused as anyone by the sight on his television screen of an Irish bobsleigh team, competing at the Winter Olympics in France, sporting skin-tight luminous green suits and hurtling down a track at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour.
What puzzled him more was the fact that one of the crew, Terry McHugh, was a good friend who he had always thought to have been of reasonably sound mind. "To be honest, I sat there watching Terry and I said to myself, `What is he doing? Has he gone completely mad?' It just looked absolutely unbelievable."
Six years on and guess who'll be sharing a two-man sled with McHugh, hurtling down a Japanese track, at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour, this weekend? "It makes perfectly good sense once you're there. Honest," insists Pamplin, one member of the six-man Irish bobsleigh team that is in Nagano for this month's Winter Games. Pamplin and McHugh will team up in Ireland I and Peter Donohoe partners Simon Linscheid in Ireland II in the two-man competition, which starts today and finishes tomorrow, and all four will be compete with Garry Power and Nessan O'Carroll for places in the four-man event, which begins next Friday.
The six members of the team came to bobsleighing from a variety of sporting backgrounds - McHugh competed in three summer Olympic Games in the javelin and Power, who was also in the bobsleigh team in 1992, began his sporting life as an international discus thrower. Donohoe represented Ireland in the 110 metres hurdles, Linscheid in the hammer event and Pamplin, who is also a former youth international footballer, in the 100 metres, where he had a personal best of 10.7 seconds. O'Carroll's background is in martial arts.
"A lot of us come from sports which involve explosive power and speed," explains Linscheid. "There aren't that many sports where you can get someone who can clean lift over 100 kilos and then run 30 metres in less than four seconds - that's what's required in bobsleigh."
Most of the current team was encouraged to get involved in the sport by McHugh, who first took up bobsleighing 12 years ago.
"I'd known Terry for years and when I heard rumours in 1996 that they were getting a new team together I contacted him and he just said `come along'. I just love sport in general and I fancied trying something new," says Pamplin. "So we went off to a bob school in Innsbruck where we all learnt to drive - and we just took it from there. We finally qualified for the Olympics through the Americas Cup circuit last year."
Linscheid tells a similar story. "I knew three members of the team in '92, because some of them were athletes like Terry, Malachy Sheridan and John Farrelly. I had wanted to get involved but then the programme was disbanded and we didn't have a team at the last Games. Then the Olympic Council wanted to start a new programme and they came to me and asked me to get involved.
"I kind of look on it as fate. I was training for the Olympics since I was a kid - I thought it was going to be hammer, it turned out to be bobsleigh, but really it was the same training. I tried so hard to get to the Barcelona Games and it just didn't happen - now I'm fulfilling a dream I had since I was four, to go to the Olympics," said Linscheid, whose younger brother Roman competed in Atlanta in the hammer event. The refusal of the Minister for Sport, Dr McDaid, to make funding available for the team on the advice of the Irish Sports Council almost scuppered their hopes of going to Japan, but the Olympic Council of Ireland came to the rescue, just days before they were scheduled to leave, when they announced they would use monies designated for Sydney 2000 to fund the participation of the team, which also included skier Patrick Schwarzacher-Joyce. "To have the Sports Council say that they weren't going to fund winter sports was very frustrating, to say the least," says McHugh. "I would like to think we would be measured on our merits and I would have thought that when you achieve Olympic qualification, regardless of the sport, you should be taken seriously. We have to give full credit to Pat Hickey (president of the OCI) - without his support this probably wouldn't be happening.
"We were in Innsbruck when we heard Mr Treacy (John, head of the Irish Sports Council) say he wouldn't be asking for support for us. We were all very disappointed but hopefully those attitudes will change - it's going to be difficult for us but I think we will change them. Eddie Jordan had to start somewhere and people laughed at him - look at him now. There's no reason why that can't be us soon.
"People here have been a bit cynical towards what we've done, there is some begrudgery. Compare that to the Swiss or the Americans - they can't believe how little support we get. They are supported so well in everything they do, there's no cynicism, no begrudgery, you just do the sport you choose and that's it."
One source of enormous help to the Irish team has been three-time bobsleigh Olympian Albert Grimaldi, better known to nonbobsleighers as Prince Albert of Monaco. Having already had to rent the two-man sleds they will use in Nagano, the Irish still needed to find a four-man sled, which Prince Albert duly supplied. "He is tremendously helpful, he always has been to us," said McHugh. "Maybe it's because he's got a lot of Irish in him and he understands what it's like to be a small nation with unfavourable climatic conditions.
"Without him we wouldn't be driving four-man in the Olympics, so that says a lot," said Pamplin. "He has been great to us and has fully supported us in everything we've done and want to do."
Like Prince Albert, who has never finished above 25th in his previous three Olympics, the Irish have modest ambitions for the coming week. "You can't expect to compete with the established teams that have million pound budgets for equipment, so we're very much coming in as the poor relations with little tradition in the sport and with rented equipment," said McHugh.
"So we'll be looking to beat the people on a similar footing to ourselves - the Puerto Ricans, the Virgin Islands, Trinidad, Greece, people like that - anyone who has similar climatic conditions and isn't a regular on the circuit. We don't expect to be beaten by anybody in that category because we have better athletes than they have."
Linscheid has set more specific goals for the team. "For the push we want to be within two-tenths of the top teams in the world, which I think we're capable of achieving. Our best two-man in 1992 finished 32nd, so we would hope to do at least better that - in the four-man I think we can make the top-30, which would be fantastic, and our goal in the two-man is the top 25. If you get top 25 in the Olympics in anything that's brilliant."
The bobsleigh events take place at the unique `Spiral', the first artificial ice track to be constructed in Asia. Located in the foothills of Mount Iizuna in the Asakawa district in the northern part of Nagano City, the 1,700 metreslong track, with 15 bends and a 113-metre drop from top to bottom, is the only one in the world with two uphill sections. The environmentally-conscious Japanese were anxious to avoid making any unnecessary changes to the landscape in the 18-hectare site and asked the track's designer, German Ralf Mende, to follow the natural contours of the mountain on which it is built.
Among the 28 nations that have sent bobsleigh teams to Nagano is Jamaica. Speaking of whom . . . does anyone ever mention Cool Runnings in conversation? Pamplin grins but wears the expression of a man who will spontaneously combust if one more person mentions that film. "The only thing you can say about it is that very few people knew what bob sport was before it -now everyone knows about it. What you have to remember, too, is that the Jamaicans started as a very weak nation, but finished 14th in the last Olympics - hopefully we'll go the same way."
Green Runnings, the Sequel?