As the world turns its attention to the games of the XXIInd Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, I find myself being drawn to the story of Bowdoin’s first winter Olympian, Geof Mason of the Class of 1923, who competed in the 1928 games in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The 1928 games featured 15-year-old Sonja Henie, who captured her first gold medal in women’s figure skating. The Canadian hockey team outscored three opponents by a combined score of 39-0 to claim the Olympic title. The U.S. did not field a hockey team, after Chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee (and Major General) Douglas MacArthur rejected the selection of a team from Augsburg College in Minnesota because it was “not sufficiently American” – the five Hansen brothers on the team had spent several years in Alberta, Canada. Demonstration sports included skijoring, a race on snow in which horses tow skiers behind them. The 1928 games also marked the only time that five-man (rather than four-man) teams competed in the bobsleigh/bobsled event.
In 1928 there were no bobsleigh runs or tracks in the United States, and the only Americans who had any experience in the sport were those who had spent time in the alpine regions of Europe. Two American sleds were entered in the competition, and although each had experienced drivers and brakemen, there weren’t enough athletes to fill out the middle of the sleds. The solution seemed simple enough: advertise.
Geoffrey Mason of the Class of 1923 was living in Germany with his wife and two young daughters and studying at the University of Freiburg. In January he read a column by sportswriter “Sparrow” Robertson in the Paris edition of the New York Herald-Tribune, which invited Americans in Europe who wanted to compete in the Olympics to contact the paper. Geof responded with a letter, although he had never been on a bobsled before. He had been a standout on the football team at Bowdoin and was second only to his classmate Fred Tootell as a weight man on Jack Magee’s track and field team. Tootell had won the gold medal in the hammer throw in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games.
To his surprise, Geof was told to join the team in St. Moritz, without undergoing a physical exam or riding a bobsled. Geof arrived by train in St. Moritz at 10 PM. There was no room in the hotel with the American team, so he stayed next door, with the Canadian hockey team. The next day he met his teammates, two of whom were also walk-ons with little or no bobsled experience. Since the team was not going to be practicing for a few days, the driver suggested that Geof fill in with the Polish bobsleigh crew, which was temporarily down a man due to illness. Bobsled technique of the day called for the team members to lie prone, layered like shingles on a roof. The brakeman, the final person to jump on the sled at the top of the course, would “bob” up and down on the straightaways to increase the sled’s speed, hence the name “bobsled.” Geof completed three successful runs and found that the Poles were very friendly and helpful.
The U.S. # 2 sled (also known as “Satan”) was piloted by 16-year-old daredevil Billy Fiske, who had mastered the fine art of steering down a channel of ice and snow at terrifying speeds. His father, a Paris partner of a Wall Street firm, had sent Billy to Switzerland to defer Billy’s enrollment at Cambridge University for a year. The #2 position was occupied by Nion Tucker, a 42-year-old businessman (California-Berkeley, Class of 1909). Geof (age 25) was in the third spot. Clifford Gray (age 36) was another walk-on and a Cornell graduate. The brakeman was 34-year-old Richard Parke (Cornell 1916), who was living in Paris, but had at least some experience in bobsledding. All of the members of the team had traveled extensively in Europe, and all had been in Europe for the months leading up to the 1928 games. On the 1,300-yard Cresta Run the team seemed to work well together. Fiske insisted that Gray and brakeman Parke both bob on the straightaways and that Parke bob on the turns to generate greater speed. As the #3 man on the sled, Geof’s role was to absorb the shock of the “bobbers” throwing themselves on top of him and to transmit that energy through his arms to the sled.
After snow had fallen on the day of the opening ceremonies, the temperatures became unseasonably warm and rainy. The bobsled competition was held on the final day, and each team was limited to two runs instead of the four that had been scheduled. ”Satan” had the fastest time on the first run, which provided enough of a cushion to compensate for a slower second run. When all was finished, the U.S. #2 sled beat the U.S. #1 sled by 0.5 seconds, with a German sled in third place.
As Geof later recalled, there was no medal stand for the victors, and no music was played when the flags were raised. A bobsled official found Mason in the crowd, handed him a box, and said, “Here, Mason. Here’s your medal.” The wife of a Canadian hockey player suggested that Geof take home the American flag from the closing ceremonies as a souvenir, which he did. He returned to the hotel, paid his bill out of his own pocket, and returned to Freiburg. It was his only foray into competitive bobsled racing.
Billy Fiske went on to win another gold medal driving a four-man bobsled in the1932 Games in Lake Placid, New York. The only member of the 1928 team who joined him on the 1932 sled was Cliff Gray. Fiske refused to compete in the 1936 games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany in protest to the developing political situation there. He joined the Royal Air Force as a pilot in 1940 and was killed in the Battle of Britain. Nion Tucker became the senior partner in his own brokerage firm in San Francisco, and played a key role in the small mergers that created United Airlines. He died in 1950. Brakeman Richard A. Parke was involved in finance in Minnesota, New York, and Paris. He died in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1950, and is buried in St. Moritz.
…as a result of the St. Moritz Olympic Winter Sports, Tootell has ceased to be 1923’s sole Olympic Champion.
Clifford Gray deserves a paragraph all to himself, largely because of a case of mistaken identity. If you were to search the internet for “Clifford Gray” and “bobsled,” you would find articles about a British silent-movie actor, songwriter, and librettist who wrote “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” and other familiar songs. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), Clifford “Tippi” Grey (born Percival Davis) led a double life as an American-impersonating bobsledder in two Olympiads, unbeknownst to his friends, associates, and even his own children. The story of the British songwriter-turned-Olympic gold medalist appeals to the Walter Mitty in all of us, and it persists, despite the absence of a shred of evidence to support it (e.g., photos, letters, medals). If USOC Chairman MacArthur would disqualify the American hockey team in 1928 for not being “sufficiently American,” what chance would a British actor/songwriter have of passing muster, however convincing his accent? The real bobsledding Clifford Barton Gray was born in Chicago in 1892. He attended Cornell, and may have known brakeman Richard “Ned” Parke as a fellow student. I have located several passport photos of Clifford B. Gray, and they are clearly of the same person that is in photos of the 1928 and 1932 U.S. bobsled teams. He died in California in 1969.
Geof Mason wrote in the March 1928 issue of the Bowdoin Alumnus, “…as a result of the St. Moritz Olympic Winter Sports, Tootell has ceased to be 1923’s sole Olympic Champion.” Upon returning from Europe, Geof taught Latin and coached the full spectrum of sports at Sewickley Academy in Pennsylvania until 1947. From 1947 until his retirement he was safety director of Newman-Crosby Steel Co., in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He shared the following in an article in the Winter 1976 issue of the Bowdoin Alumnus: “…in most pursuits, success is achieved by starting at the bottom and working one’s way as swiftly as possible to the top. In bobsleighing, particularly in my case, one starts at the top and works his way as swiftly as possible to the bottom!” Geof died in 1987, the last surviving member of an ad hoc and legendary team that was touched by the Olympic spirit.
With best wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations