“Chariots of Fire meets Cool Runnings?”: The history of a bobsled team

Andy Bull’s Speed Kings is about the 1932 American Olympic bobsled team – and reminds us how mortality underlines all sport.

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Sport means more when there’s a whiff of death in the air, when there is a very short distance between fun and horror, when someone – when you – could die for a thrill, for a laugh, for the joy of beating the other buggers. Guy Martin, a motorcyclist who takes part in the notorious TT races on the Isle of Man, talks about “that near-death thing”. In 1999, Polly Phillipps was one of five horse riders killed in separate incidents. Vere Phillipps, her husband, qualified as an eventer so that he could compete on his late wife’s horse – the one she was riding when she died – at the daunting Burghley event. “I’ll never get another chance to ride a horse Polly trained,” he said by way of explanation.

People who take part in risk sports – without exception, in my experience – reject any suggestion that they are half in love with easeful death and do so with bewilderment and dismay. No, they say: they are wholly in love with testing life.

Andy Bull takes on the intertwined stories of the four Americans who won the bobsleigh event at the Winter Olympics of 1932, which were held at Lake Placid in New York State. It may be another world in social terms and it may be another universe so far as sport and the Olympic Games are concerned but there is still that moment of stillness at the top of the run, that faint odour of mortality.

Each member of the team has a story worth savouring. Jay O’Brien was a rakehell and a gambler, one of those figures, incomprehensible to modern senses, who could get away with anything because of his charm and social connections. He took the adventurer’s place in the bob. Eddie Eagan was that rare thing, a man who lived rather than dreamed the American dream. He came from a poor background but could box the hell out of anyone. He also had a taste for books. He became a Rhodes scholar and an Olympic boxer; he is still the only athlete to have won a gold medal at both the summer and the winter Olympics. Clifford Grey was a semi-innocent bystander who got roped in when the American team needed another bod at the St Moritz Winter Olympics of 1928. He worked in films and musicals and is often confused – even in his sporting career – with the Englishman Clifford Grey, who wrote the lyrics for “If You Were the Only Girl (in the World)”.

The book’s hero is Billy Fiske, who was only 16 when he drove the American sled to victory in 1928 and 20 when he completed the double. We would recognise him as an athlete today, despite his privileged background. He had plenty of natural talent but also a taste for training and hard work. In the amateur years, he was a natural professional – and, it seems, a damn good guy. He joined the RAF in the Second World War and was killed in action. A man worth celebrating.

But this is an odd book. The reader feels like an intruder, butting in on a 400-page synopsis for a film. Did they say, at the editorial conference, “You know, Chariots of Fire meets Cool Runnings?” Bull writes in his acknowledgements that the subject wasn’t his idea but a reader might have guessed as much. We have competence instead of passion. A great deal of research has gone into this book and Bull spares us none of it. As a result, the four tales are not cleanly told and it is easy to lose your way among the legions of minor characters. This isn’t science: God doesn’t dwell in the details. God is narrative. But perhaps they’ll sort that out in the film.

The best bits are the sport. As always, the truth is in the action, even if it’s all briefer than you might have hoped (afterwards, there is a lengthy what-happened-next ­section and, again, the story gets muddied). Besides, you mistrust a writer who tells you  early on: “Every galaxy needs a star.” What, only one?

It’s the racing that stays with you. Bull quotes Steven Holcomb, the US bobsledder who won gold in 2010: “You go over that edge and you will crash. And if you hang back from it, you will lose.” Sport in a line.

Speed Kings by Andy Bull is published by Bantam Press (400pp, £17.99)

This article appears in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left