The story of bobsleigh racing in the Engadin is full of twists and turns, setbacks and victories. Now the athlete Melanie Hasler is set to rewrite history.
Melanie Hasler said before travelling to the Beijing Winter Olympics. Soon after, she managed to come seventh in the monobob competition and so received an Olympic diploma. She could well have gained a better result, but during her run she touched the barrier and lost precious hundredths of a second. A typical slip in bobsleigh racing, when athletes hurtle down the ice track at speeds of up to 150km/h in vehicles that are tricky to manoeuvre. But Melanie Hasler’s real achievement was being the first woman to represent Switzerland when the 2022 Winter Olympics premiered women’s monobob as a discipline. She embodies the modern face of bobsleigh, then, and as a Swiss woman, symbolises the mountains in which the history of bobsleigh racing began. The sport’s origins are closely linked to winter tourism, and specifically winter tourism in the Engadin. And they stretch far back, all the way to the 1890s, when holidaymakers from England brought the sport of tobogganing to St. Moritz. The first prototype of their new vehicle consisted of two American-style toboggans fastened together. Initially these racing sledges served primarily as sporting kit for wealthy guests, but interest in them quickly spread. According to the annals of the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC), “A new sport, which had previously only been practised here and there, started to gain in popularity from 1890 – tobogganing with a bobsleigh. It is made of two luge frames joined together with a long board. The front part is moved using a steering mechanism, while the back is fixed to a long seat board and has a heavy clamping device. Several people have to sit on the sled at the same time, fostering a team spirit. The man in front is in charge of steering and the one at the back takes care of the brakes.
Before the arrival of the bobsleigh, daredevil racers would ride toboggans or skeletons (special sledges ridden head-first, stomach-down) along the winding curves of the Cresta Run, the ice track from St. Moritz down to Celerina Crasta. But the bulky bobsleigh was not really suitable for the narrow run and so posed a problem for the members of the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club. Which, then, was the true, correct and altogether better form of the sport? The tobogganers and bobsleigh enthusiasts agreed to differ and go their separate ways. The many photographs on the walls of St. Moritz’s Sunny Bar, a kind of clubhouse for the SMTC, continue to this day to tell of the sports’ bumpy start.
The adrenaline rush with tradition
On 21 December 1897 the separation of the two camps was sealed with the founding of the St. Moritz Bobsleigh Club (SMBC), the world’s first, and became definitive in 1904 with the opening of the world’s first bobsleigh run, which follows its own serpentine course down the mountainside. The club’s goals were strategic as well as operational: it should not only promote the interests of bobsleigh racing in St. Moritz and improve the sport’s reputation, but also boost safety – for example, with checkpoints overseeing dangerous corners during competitions. The SMBC attracted a great deal of interest, also because women, too, were welcome from the beginning. According to the club’s statutes, two members of the five-person committee had to be women. In addition, three-person bobsleigh crews had to include a woman, while four-person crews had to have two. This system worked wonderfully for nearly 30 years until the 1920s, when women were forced out of the sport for questionable reasons – with dubious medical and moral arguments cited, as in the case of other sports. It was claimed, for example, that the high speeds and sharp jolts would increase the risk of breast cancer. The close physical contact in the cramped bobsleigh was also said to be unbecoming for a woman. As a result, bobsleigh racing moved into reverse in terms of progressive gender roles, while it continued to develop in terms of technique and technology. The bobsleighs were steadily improved, and competitors realised the importance of a good start – which is why powerful athletes from other sports including handball and gymnastics were recruit - ed, in place of women, to push the bobsleigh as fast as possible at the start of the race. For female bobsleigh enthusiasts, a long period of exclusion began, which only came to an end in 1992 when Switzer - land’s bobsleigh association admitted female teams. Since then, women racers have picked up speed once again and now rocket down the twisting tracks of ice with impressive skill and daring – like the Olympic athlete Melanie Hasler, whose story is closely linked to St. Moritz. Her original sport was volleyball, but her talent and suitability for bobsleigh were spotted – and the St. Moritz Bobsleigh Club helped her with a monobob to enable her switch from sand to ice.
Today she is a member of and ambassador for the world’s longest-running bobsleigh club, which is looking forward to a promising year. In 2023, the Bobsleigh World Championships are taking place on the Olympia Bob Run from St. Moritz to Celerina: for Melanie Hasler, an ideal opportunity to write her own chapter in the history of bobsleigh racing at her home track