Bobsleighing has thrilled participants and spectators alike for more than 130 years.
Bobsleighing has thrilled participants and spectators alike for more than 130 years. Swiss National Museum

From snob sport to bob sport

It’s no accident who goes in for what sport in a particular era. The example of bobsleighing demonstrates this very well.

Simon Engel

Simon Engel

Simon Engel is a historian and is responsible for public relations work at Swiss Sports History.

Martin Annen, Simon Friedli, Michael Vogt, Beat Hefti. This is a random selection of Swiss bobsleigh pilots from the past decade. Their occupations: cheesemaker, chef, polymechanic and carpenter. Before they started bobsleighing, these men were active gymnasts, track and field athletes or wrestlers. Virtually a cliché of rural Switzerland. However, the very first bobsleigh aces, who appeared on the scene in about 1890, were called H.W. Topham, E. Cremers and F.J. Watson. Nothing is known about their professions, but what they have in common is that they were British or American and regularly holidayed at one of the posh hotels in St Moritz. They belonged to the upper class. Inevitably, the snob cliché comes to mind. From wealthy sportsman to working-class hero – bobsleighing has come a long way since its invention. The beginnings of bobsleighing are closely linked to winter tourism in Switzerland. The first known bobsleigh was introduced by an American spa guest at a health resort in St Moritz in the 1888/89 season. It consisted of two American-style sleighs, known as ‘Americas’ or ‘toboggans’, and, unlike the local Davos sleighs, was built not just of wood but of steel as well.
The tourists’ sleighs were based on the North American-style construction of the toboggan.
The tourists’ sleighs were based on the North American-style construction of the toboggan. ETH Bibliothek Zurich, Image Archive
A year later, a British banker turned up with a bobsleigh made entirely of steel. By virtue of their properties, the bobsleighs and toboggans were vastly superior to the local wooden sleighs in terms of speed; metal simply works better on snow and ice. The sleigh itself was a concept of great antiquity that had been in use in some parts of the world in a number of different ways, whether as a means of transport or as a popular amusement. Even the well-to-do tourists initially sleighed using traditional wooden Davos sleighs on their winter holidays in Switzerland. It was most likely the class-specific desire for exclusivity and the thrill of speed that prompted the wealthy British and American tourists to have an expensive high-tech bobsleigh built for themselves.
Even before the invention of the bobsleigh, sleighing was a leisure activity engaged in by all social classes.
Even before the invention of the bobsleigh, sleighing was a leisure activity engaged in by all social classes. Swiss National Museum

What is true ice sleighing?

The construction of suitable toboggan runs in which people could go downhill as fast as possible also called for substantial investments. The model for these was probably ice chutes such as already existed in Russia and France. Resourceful hoteliers and tourists now sought to combine the ice chute idea with tobogganing and develop it for tourism use in St Moritz. In January 1885, on the initiative of the Outdoor Amusement Committee of the Kulm Hotel, the Cresta Run was built for the first time. So the course was there four years before the bobsleigh was invented. People rode the course using the toboggans mentioned above. Solo and lying horizontally. The ice run was financed by donations collected at masked balls held by the upper classes. With the building of the Cresta Run, the St Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC) was also established. The bobsleighers who rode their sleighs in groups, rather than solo, initially joined the SMTC as a subsection. But as early as 1897 they went their own way and set up their own club (and thus the world’s first bobsleigh club), the St Moritz Bobsleigh Club (SMBC). In 1904 the new club built its own track (the present-day Olympia Run), also constructed in cooperation with a hotelier and with the aid of donations. There were two reasons for the separation into tobogganers and bobsleighers: there was disagreement over the use of the Cresta Run and over what ‘true’ ice sleighing was.
Toboggan pilot on the upper part of the Cresta Run, 1902.
Toboggan pilot on the upper part of the Cresta Run, 1902. ETH Bibliothek Zurich, Image Archive

Sport, parties and celebrities

What both camps had in common, however, was that they interpreted sleighing as they knew it from their Anglo-Saxon homeland and their social milieu. They combined fun with sporting competition and turned it into a social event. For the bobsleigh teams there was prize money to be won, and the public could place bets on the winner. The whole affair was rounded off with exclusive parties in the hotels. This type of elitist and club-based amateur sport soon attracted imitators; aristocrats and members of the upper classes from throughout Europe started travelling to St Moritz, or sponsored the building of ice runs in other resorts.
German Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia with his bobsleigh ‘Roter Adler’ (Red Eagle) in St Moritz in 1911.
German Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia with his bobsleigh ‘Roter Adler’ (Red Eagle) in St Moritz in 1911. Bildarchiv BASPO
The upper crust turned these bobsleigh events into real occasions. Here, a group picnics on the frozen lake in St Moritz.
The upper crust turned these bobsleigh events into real occasions. Here, a group picnics on the frozen lake in St Moritz. Swiss National Museum
Meanwhile, the ‘common people’ continued to go sleighging on the village streets and forest trails. However, there were individual bobsleighers quite early on who didn’t come from the upper class. In St Moritz, these were often local people who had business contacts with the wealthy tourists: artisans who worked as sleigh-makers or run-constructors, or traders such as Nino Bibbia, who acquired his first high-tech sleigh in exchange for a crate of Chianti. The evolution from snob sport to bob sport began with the launch of international competitions in the late 1920s, and further picked up pace after 1950. It was no longer a private rivalry between peers, but the battle between nations that became the overriding principle.
Bobsleigh race in St Moritz, 1927. YouTube / British Pathé
Village sleighing in St Moritz around 1910.
Village sleighing in St Moritz around 1910. Bildarchiv BASPO

Were the women too fast?

In the quest for the best material and the ideal technology, the national bobsleigh associations encouraged experimentation. In the 1950s it was realised that crucial hundredths of a second could be gained at the start, and people started recruiting powerful gymnasts, track and field athletes and handball players as pushers and pilots. Bobsleighing as we know it today was born. The St Moritz amateur bobsleigh organisation continued to run in parallel and still exists today, albeit in a somewhat less elitist and exclusive form. For a long time, this exclusivity was manifested in the fact that women were excluded from bobsleighing. This is astonishing, considering that women were present when the SMBC was established in 1897 and that the club’s five-person board was required to include two ‘ladies’. Mixed and all-women teams were common into the 1920s. In its beginnings, bobsleighing was more than just a sport; it was also a kind of party game, where young men and women were able to meet and mingle openly and away from middle-class attitudes to morality. British woman J.M. Baguley even set two course records in the related sport of tobogganing. After that the climate changed; the men were probably afraid of the fast-moving ladies. Just as in other types of sports, medical and moral justifications were put forward as a pretext: due to the high speeds and heavy shocks sustained, women would have a higher risk of breast cancer when bobsleighing. In addition, the close proximity of the sexes in the tight confines of the bobsleigh was thought to compromise a woman’s integrity.
Bachmann bobsleigh in the race for the Montreux Cup; Les Avants 1908. In the 3-man bob event, one team member had to be a woman.
Bachmann bobsleigh in the race for the Montreux Cup; Les Avants 1908. In the 3-man bob event, one team member had to be a woman; in the 4-man variant, there had to be two women on the sleigh. Bildarchiv BASPO
This attitude continued to be passed down for decades in the male-led bobsleigh federations. It wasn’t until 1992 – 20 years after women were given the vote in Switzerland – that the Swiss Bobsleigh Federation allowed female teams, and the first women’s bobsleigh world championship took place in 2000. Françoise Burdet and Katharina Sutter won bronze for Switzerland at that event. This male bastion was conquered by pioneers such as Heidy Rost and Barbara Muriset. They had to go through the experience of discovering that it really is no accident who is allowed to do what sport.
Burdet and Sutter in a World Cup race during the 1998/99 season. YouTube

Swiss Sports History

Swiss Sports History
This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at sportshistory.ch

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