A man to admire

Two weeks ago, the Lance Armstrong shtick caught everyone’s attention. Now, it’s not even a blip on the 6 o’clock news. And I’m sure all too soon Armstrong will be permanently (and justly) consigned to the dust heap of history.

But while he may vanish from the slate of People Who Matter, a question raised by his behavior will remain – namely, Should we use athletes as role models?

It’s a question with a simple answer: Sure, we should if the specific athlete is a worthy example. The problem lies in how well we know the athletes, as opposed to how their public-relations people spin them. Which is no small deal because picking role models is like picking a dentist or mechanic or mate: You’d better choose well, because if you don’t, you can end up with a whole lot of bad ju-ju.

But if you do want an athlete role model, I’ve got the perfect one for you – Eugenio Monti.

The ice king

If you’re not from this area and you’re a bunch younger than me, your first reaction to his name is probably, “Eugenio who?’

But if you’re from here and you’re my age or older, you’re already nodding your head, and maybe smiling besides.

Eugenio Monti was a bobsledder. But that description says nothing. It’s like saying Mohammed Ali was a boxer and Sandy Koufax was a pitcher. Monti is considered the greatest bobsledder ever.

He won nine World Championships and took a silver in another. He medaled in three Olympics, taking a pair of firsts in one, a pair of seconds in another, and pair of bronze in a third. Most amazingly, his golds came in the ’68 Olympics, when he was 40 years old.

So how do I know about Monti?

How could I not?

We’ve had the bob run at Mount Van Hoevenberg since 1930, having been built for the ’32 Olympics. Today, it doesn’t seem a big deal, given all Lake Placid’s other winter venues. But when I was a kid, it was a huge deal, because not only was it the only game in town – it was the only game in the hemisphere!! And that’s why for many years all the nation’s bobsledders were local yokels. It’s also why everyone in town followed bobsledding and bobsledders in one way or another.

Me, I was hardly a bobsledding groupie, but I knew the area sledders and read about their triumphs and tribulations, as religiously recorded in the Enterprise. So it was only a matter of course that I read about Monti, since he was the gold standard.

But Monti wasn’t just a great athlete – he was also a wonderful person. I never met him, but everyone who did gave only glowing reports. He was especially nice to kids, always having time to give autographs and make chitchat with whichever ragamuffins assailed him.

I only saw Monti once, in the winter of 1961. The World Championships were being held in Lake Placid, and someone organized a parade in My Home Town for the sledders. It was a pretty rinky-dink affair as far as parades go, but attendance was excellent. Of course we were there to cheer on Our Boys, God Love ‘Em, but I’m sure a lot of people wanted to get a look at the legendary Monti. I sure did.

I don’t remember much about him except he smiled a waved at all of us – he seemed just a friendly, down-to-earth guy.

But by nature he was something else – extremely quiet and shy, always avoiding crowds and attention. Bunk Giffin, who bobsledded at that time, said he was amazed Monti was in our parade without having been hogtied by the locals.

But though a low-key person, he was a fierce competitor. Bunk remembered Monti once broke a bunch of ribs on a run but still insisted on competing. And to do it, he had his team strap him in the sled and tape his hands to the steering ropes. Obviously, he couldn’t help push off at the start, but no matter – he took first place anyway.

But is this why I think he’s a great role model? Not at all. What tipped it for me was his performance in the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck.


True Olympic spirit

In the two-man competition, he was in third place, with only the British team piloted by Tony Nash (who were in first) left to take their final run. However, before they did, they discovered a bolt was broken on their sled, which would have ruined their chances of taking any medal. When Monti found out, he immediately had a bolt taken off his sled and given to the Brits. They made their last run and ended up finishing first. Monti and his partner finished third.

And as if that’s not enough, catch this: Among the four-man sleds was a Canadian team. They had no government or corporate sponsorship and were thought to have no chance against the Italians or the Germans. Then, on their first run, they amazed everyone by setting a course record. Unfortunately, they also damaged their axle. If it weren’t fixed, they’d be disqualified.

Once again, Monti rose to the occasion. He and his mechanics repaired the axle and the Canadians went on to take first place, the only time Canada won an Olympic gold in bobsledding. Once again, Monti and his team took third place.

Monti never made a big deal of either act; in fact, he only spoke in public about it once. He’d received a lot of criticism from his home press for helping the Brits and thus losing his chance of getting the silver medal, to which he replied: “Nash didn’t win because I gave him the bolt. He won because he had the fastest run.”

So if you want an athlete for a role model, you’ve got one.

Eugenio Monti was what too many athletes will never be – a true sportsman in both senses of the word.