Speed Kings by Andy Bull

24941475Winter 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.

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12 comments

  1. I love that you went to St. Moritz on your honeymood! My feelings about this book seem to have been very similar. It needed just a little something more – though it was really interesting.

    • I think it would be a great book for a fan of the Olympic Games. I just happen to be a big fan of bobsledding and was hoping for a greater focus on that particular sport. But reading about how the Winter Games came to Lake Placid was pretty interesting.

  2. There’s so much focused excitement around the Games, and the thrills of competition, it’s understandable that the athletes’ further lives become a bit dull in comparison. I wouldn’t expect to be interested in a book about bobsledding at all, but it sounds like this one could get even me excited about it (if not about the extraneous gambling and drinking).

    • I had hoped for a greater focus on the sport itself, but the historical context was pretty interesting. It was so different then than it is now, when cities are vying to host the Games and are expected to spend millions of dollars on the event.

    • If you are looking for a book just about sports, then this one might not be for you. But there are lots of interesting historical facts in here, so if you like reading about the 1920s, for example, then you might enjoy it.

  3. This reminds me of how I felt about The Boys in the Boat (about the Olympic rowing team). There were parts that were good, and parts that I just didn’t care about. I guess they would be pretty short books if they only focused on the event itself. I don’t think I would mind that, though.

    It’s funny that what you loved about the sport is what frustrated me about it. I used to watch it with my Dad, and I always felt like it wasn’t worth watching a sport that the competitors could be separated by fractions of a second. My dad would argue that it was strategy, and I would argue that it was chance. I often watched it with him anyway, though, because it looked like a lot of fun. Except for the crashing.

    • I think there is some luck involved, and I’m sure it’s frustrating for the second-place person to lose by less time than it takes to blink. But I find a competition that close much more fun to watch than a baseball game, for example, where it’s 10-0 in the first inning and then you have to sit for another 8 innings before it’s done.
      I’ve never read The Boys in the Boat, but I’d like to, even though I know of several people had the same criticism you had. I’m reading a new book by the author right now, and it reads very well. (It’s about the Donner Party, though, not about sports.)

      • I just looked it up, and that one sounds like one I’d like even more! It’s already on my list and you haven’t reviewed it yet. 🙂

  4. You went to St. Moritz for your honeymoon to see bobsledding’s birth place?! That’s awesome. And – I agree with you about all the social stuff…that totally turned me off. I only read parts of this one and the part I did enjoy was the Lake Placid section about bringing in the Olympics and getting the bobsled run built…plus, Dewey! I found the rest of the parts I did get through pretty painful. Oh well, you can’t win ’em all!

    • I wonder if this book would work a little better if it had focused on only one person, rather than one event. I liked reading about Eddie Eagan and Billy Fiske, but I didn’t care much for Jay O’Brien. And the Deweys were crazy, weren’t they?! Brilliant, but crazy. We only stopped in St. Moritz for lunch, and since it was summer, the track wasn’t all that impressive, but it was still fun to look around.

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