Winter sports were big at our house when I grew up. While we didn’t do so much of it ourselves (there wasn’t all that much snow where we lived), we would spend many weekends watching biathlon, ski jumping, and bobsledding. What I like most about all three is that a competition can change in a heartbeat. In bobsledding, skeleton, and luge in particular, athletes can be separated by only one tenth or even a hundredth of a second. You never know who wins until the last competitor has crossed the finish line. So you can imagine that there was always a lot of yelling at the house. You might also imagine that my husband looked at me a little strangely when I insisted that our honeymoon include a quick stop in St. Moritz to visit the famous bobsleigh track there. You can further imagine that I jumped at the chance to read Speed Kings by Andy Bull*, which is about the 4 “fastest men” who competed for America in the bobsledding competition of the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
The book starts out with a history of the sport: a Swiss hotelier needed something to lure tourists to St. Moritz in the winter. Rich daredevils with nothing better to do took to sledding with much enthusiasm, and the need for speed made it a perfect spectator sport as well. I enjoyed reading about how the small town transformed itself into a bobsledding mecca, making the sport ever more popular—and dangerous. Unfortunately, then the story started to drag a bit, as the book took a long time to introduce all the people who would become important during the run-up to and the actual 1932 Olympic Games. By the time the book was done talking about everyone’s affairs, gambling, and drinking, I was itching to get back to the sports part.
When the story did focus again on the sport—the obstacles to building a new, expensive, and, in many ways, revolutionary track during the Great Depression, the uncooperative weather during the Games, the competition between athletes—I was flying through the pages. The narrative finally matched the speed of the sport (figuratively speaking). For me, this was the highlight of the book.
It is probably not surprising then that the part that came once the Games were over felt a little anticlimactic. I got the impression that some of the athletes felt similarly. Especially Billy Fiske, the driver of the winning 4-man team, spent some time looking for his next adventure afterwards. He was an excellent athlete with little interest in fame. While he would never participate in a bobsledding competition again, he went on to become a successful skeleton driver—without even really practicing. I imagine he would have gotten along with Louis Zamperini (featured in Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken), had they ever met. Fiske’s life, though, was unfortunately cut short by World War II.
Overall, this was a good book, once it got going. I wish it would have offered a little more about the sport and a little less about the athletes’ social life, but I realize that it would have been hard to separate the two.
*I received a free copy of the book from the publisher.