The bobsled was developed from the sled of ancient times, which was merely a strip of animal skin stretched between smoothed strips of wood acting as runners. The first step in this evolution was the toboggan. It was conceived and developed about 1890 by a group of thrill-seeking American and English vacationers in Switzerland who were looking for something more daring than plodding through the Swiss Alps on snowshoes.
They laid out a course on the mountains around St. Moritz and were soon hurtling down the snow-clad slopes.
It soon was discovered that the toboggan was too safe for this particular brand of daredevils, so they came up with the idea of mounting the toboggan on sled-like runners. This produced speeds far in excess of what the toboggan was capable of doing, but the light weight of the toboggan-sled, combined with the excessive speeds, caused the sled to lose its course and there were many serious accidents and some deaths.
The devotees of the toboggan, however, still were active and they formed an organization at St. Moritz called the Toboggan Club. New recruits for toboggan-sledding appeared in 1895 and they developed a much heavier sled than the original and added ballast to help keep it on the course. The new sleds were called “bob-sleds” and the group joined the Toboggan Club. The new group soon became dissatisfied with the safe and sane rules enforced by the Toboggan Club and withdrew to form its own organization under the name of “St. Moritz Bobsleigh Club” and mapped a course down the Swiss Alps called the Cresta Run.
The big sleighs in use at that time carried 5 passengers and the original racing rules stipulated that 2 passengers be women. In a short time stout men were substituted for the women because there were no females who cared to risk traveling over the treacherous run in bobsleds.
The first race on the Cresta Run was held as a feature of the first organized Bobsleigh Festival on Jan. 5, 1898. It was won by a crew that had G. St. Aubyn as the driver and Captain, Mrs. Shepley and Miss Davidson as women passengers, Major DeWinton the supercargo and H. N. P. Shaw the brake. Their time for the first of 2 heats was 3 minutes and the second heat took 2 minutes 54 seconds. The Cresta Run was much steeper than any courses built since, but, in comparison, present-day sleds travel equivalent-distance course in half the time.
Devotees gradually developed features on their sleds to increase their speed and as a consequence the Cresta Run proved to be too dangerous. An artificial run was built at St. Moritz in 1904 and was the first to be engineered for speed with comparative safety. Other winter sports centers soon followed and at the outbreak of World War II there were over 60 courses scattered along the mountainsides of Germany, Italy, Hungary, France, Austria, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and other countries. ies. Most of them were closed during the war years, but are now reopening.
Austria held the first national championships in 1908. Germany followed in 1910. In 1914 the first European title tests were run off. A hiatus in sports occurred during World War I, but the championships were resumed following the cessation of hostilities. When the agitation for the inclusion of winter sports on the Olympic Games program was started, bobsleighing had so many supporters that the sport was included in the First Winter Games at Chamonix, France, in 1924. This was the first recognized international championship race and was won by a 4-man Swiss team driven by E. Scherrer.
In order for bobsleighing to be recognized in the Olympic picture, it was mandatory that an international governing body be formed to promulgate racing rules for the sport. In 1923 the Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et Tobogganning was organized, with the bobsleigh clubs of the various countries the component parts of the group. This organization, abbreviated to F.I.B.T., still governs the sport.
The first world championship under the F.I.B.T. was held in 1927 at St. Moritz. A 5-man English team driven by N. C. Martineau captured first place.
That year a group of Americans who had participated in the sport at St. Moritz petitioned the United States Olympic Committee for permission to represent this country in the Second Winter Olympics at St. Moritz in 1928. The request was granted and the group allied itself with the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, which, in turn, affiliated with the F.I.B.T. The Americans took the Olympic competition in 1928 as Billy Fiske drove the 5-man crew to victory and a team piloted by J. Heaton finished second. This success started a run of victories for the United States in the Olympic bobsled event. In the 1932 Games at Lake Placid, N.Y., the 2-man competition was added to the program and American teams finished 1, 2 in the 4-man event and first in the 2-man, the brother combination of Hubert and Curtis Stevens upsetting the prerace predictions.
The United States continued its string of successes at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in 1936 when Ivan Brown and Bob Washbond of Keene Valley, N.Y., took top 2-man honors.
The chain of American victories was not broken until 1952, when the best the United States could do was finish second in both events at Oslo, Norway.