On 8 February 1968, standing at the start of the two-man bobsleigh event held on the Alpe d’Huez ice track, Eugenio Monti was about to achieve his greatest success. At the age of 40, he had seen it all and won everything, having achieved seven world titles in the two-man event since 1957 and a further two in the four-man event. He had also won two Olympic silver medals in Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956 and two bronze medals in Innsbruck in 1964, where the sportsmanship he displayed towards Britons Tony Nash and Robin Dixon earned him the Pierre de Coubertin medal. But it wasn’t until the Grenoble Winter Games that he turned his greatest dream into reality.
There, the stars aligned to make way for Monti’s crowning achievement – starting with his revolutionary bobsleigh. In thinking about the pressures exerted on a craft notoriously difficult to control on the turns, engineer Tony Bosio came up with the idea of cutting the sledge in half crosswise and connecting the two parts with a central pivot. Bosio’s solution had been successfully tested by another Italian bobsledder, Gianfranco Gaspari, who was initially keen to have exclusive use of it before eventually agreeing to Monti’s bobsleigh being modified in the same way. With the help of former teammate Sergio Siorpaes, who went on to become Italy’s national team coach and was himself a bobsleigh designer, he also used telescopic handles for the push phase and leather sole shoes fitted with steel spikes to provide maximum grip on the ice. Telescopic handles and the two-part sled are now standard features of the sport.
The first bobsledder in history to achieve the two-man/four-man double at the Winter Games
Along with teammate Luciano de Paolis, the Italy-1 pilot set a new track record in the very first run, posting a time of 1 minute, 10 seconds and 13 hundredths (70.13). The second run was dominated by Germans Horst Floth and Pepi Bader (who had finished just fifth in the first descent) in a time of 70.43, but Monti was close behind (70.72), increasing his lead at the top of the leaderboard.
The weather conditions meant that the rest of the competition had to be postponed to 11 February for the two final runs. Floth made a big impact in the third run, clocking 70.20 – 44/100ths faster than Monti – and taking the overall lead! The Italian pilot’s response was immediate, finishing the fourth run in a time of 70.05 and setting yet another track record in the process. Monti and Floth ultimately posted the same total (4:41.54), but Monti topped the leaderboard after setting the fastest time on the track. Romania-1 took bronze, finishing 4 seconds behind.
A milder spell and thawing ice resulted in the bobsleigh competition being cut to two runs instead of the scheduled four. The runs were held on 16 February. Monti’s teammates were his two-man bobsleigh partner Luciano de Paolis, Roberto Zandonella and Mario Armano. Having at long last achieved his goal of winning Olympic gold, Eugenio Monti was full of confidence going into the final race of his long career. He dominated the first run in a time of 69.84, taking a healthy lead over his rivals from the outset, including Austria-1 (Erwin Thaler), Italy-2 (Gianfranco Gaspari) and Great Britain-1 (Tony Nash), while the Switzerland-1 crew (Jean Wicki) suffered a poor descent, finishing 8 tenths of a second behind Monti. But Wicki picked himself in the second run, finishing in a time of 67.39, a time that earned him a bronze medal. Austria-1 were also faster than Monti in the final descent. Monti beat Thaler by a total of just 56/100ths of a second to become the first bobsledder in history to win the two-man and four-man Olympic titles at the same Games – a tiny difference, but a huge feat!
Eugenio Monti: the legend
Eugenio Monti’s story sounds more like an epic novel than a biography. Born in Toblach (Trentino-Alto Adige) on 28 January 1928 and nicknamed “il Rosso Volante” (the Flying Redhead) because of his ginger hair and utter fearlessness, Monti had initially been marked out as a future great of Italian Alpine skiing. However, in November 1951, at the age of just 22, Monti suffered a serious accident during a training session with the national team on the Banchetta speed track in Sestrière. His knee injuries were so severe that they spelled the end of his skiing career. But while he may not have been destined to become a skiing champion, he instead went to become one of the greatest bobsledders of all time – if not the greatest.
After winning a first national title in 1954, he went on to compete at the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo. Italy achieved a double, but history records that the Italian Winter Sports Federation kept the best bobsleigh for the Lamberto Dalla Costa-Giacomo Conti tandem (representing the air force), who won gold ahead of Monti and Renzo Alvera with a little over a second’s lead at the end of the four runs. In the four-man competition, the Switzerland-1 quartet led by Franz Kapus dominated the event, with Italy-II (Monti, Ulrico Girardi, Renzo Alvera and Renato Mocellini) taking silver.
No bobsleigh event was held at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, the only time in history that bobsleigh has not been included on the Winter Olympic programme. Monti won gold in the two-man event at every World Championships between 1957 and 1961 (five consecutive times), and then again in 1963. He also won the four-man event in 1960 and 1961. But it was at the 1964 Innsbruck Games that his story took a really special turn. After the first run of the 2-man bobsleigh event, Monti removed a bolt from his sled and gave it to Britons Tony Nash and Robin Dixon, who had just broken theirs. The British team went on to win gold ahead of Italy’s Sergio Zardini and Romano Bonagura, with the Monti-Siorpaes tandem having to settle for bronze. As Monti said: “Nash didn’t win because I gave him the bolt. He won because he had the fastest run.”
Monti displayed similar selflessness in the four-man competition, helping his friend and bobsledder Vic Emery to repair the axle of the Canadian sled. The Canadians went on to win gold ahead of Austria-1 and the Italy-II quartet led by Monti along with teammates Sergio and Guido Siorpaes and Benito Guidoni. In 1965, Monti became the first recipient of the international Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship, declaring: “It’s a gesture every sportsman should be capable of making”.
After winning a seventh world title in the two-man event in 1966, the climax of his career came at the Grenoble Games. Having retired from sport, he later became a successful entrepreneur. After suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Eugenio Monti died on 30 November 2003. Luciano De Paolis, who was instructed “to never brake”, once said of Monti that he “made other people feel like champions, whereas the champion was, in fact, him”.