Bobsleigh drivers' skills to be tested by Spiral

The sport of bobsleigh is where brute force meets advanced technology in the pursuit of Olympic glory.

The gold medal in Nagano, however, may well come down to which driver has the steadiest hand through the twists and turns of the ''Spiral'' etched on the face of Iizuna Kogen.

As for muscle, former track and field athletes, American football players and even a professional wrestler have all stepped in behind a sled to launch it down a hill where it will reach speeds of up to 130 kilometers per hours.

And the Formula One-style bobsleighs -- a far cry from the original bobs that were built by lashing together two conventional sleds -- are the products of tens of thousands of dollars invested in ultrasecret design research and construction.

Still, the 1,360-meter Spiral with its 113-meter drop that poses the biggest challenge to the drivers of the sleds in Nagano. Its sudden corners and two uphill sections are black holes that eat away at a sled's momentum on a potential medal-winning run.

One of the most unique bobsledders at Nagano will be muscular American Chip Minton, who made his debut as a professional wrestler after sledding in the two-man event in the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.

Nicknamed ''Mr. World Class,'' Minton got interested in bobsledding while watching the Albertville Games on television two years earlier when he worked as a prison guard.

Minton, who always competes carrying a picture of his 5-year-old daughter, hopes that he will be able to repeat the feat he accomplished at the Nagano Olympic venue a year ago when his four-man U.S. team glided to victory in a World Cup event.

Meanwhile, the 10-man squad of the host country, aiming to get rid of its reputation as a bodsledding lightweight, is full of former track and field athletes.

Shinji Aoto, a former 100-meter national record holder, will became the first male athlete to represent Japan for both summer and winter Olympics. He had earlier run in the Seoul and Barcelona Olympics.

His teammates include a former discus thrower, javelin thrower and a 110-meter hurdler, while the resume of national team coach Ryoji Yamazaki includes experience as a canoeist, amateur wrestler, and professional sumo wrestler.

Muscle, however, must be combined with advanced technology in order to compete in the sport which some athletes liken to auto racing.

Powerhouses such as Germany and Switzerland invest considerable sums of money in developing sleds and their parts, especially the blades, in secret.

''Our sled's blades get us through the course about one second slower than the top competitors, given the same conditions,'' said Japanese Olympic team pilot Toshio Wakita.

''It's like we're racing in Formula One cars without mechanics,'' he lamented, also referring to the shortage of Japanese technical experts in bobsleigh.

The overheated competition on the technological front also led to an unfortunate incident last season, in which the Swiss teams were later disqualified for an illegal axel after sweeping the four-man medals in the world championships.

The Swiss used a three-piece axle to make their driving smoother in violation of rules which specify that bobsledders must use one-piece axles.

Still, despite the power and the high-performance sleds, the medals will likely go to the pilots who can solve the riddle of the Spiral.

The drivers in last year's World Cup event in Nagano admitted being perplexed by the course. They remarked that seemingly good runs resulted in disappointing times, but were at a loss to try and explain where the time was lost.

(January 24, 1998)