One morning, they came across a letter stuck to their boat. It was a casting call. A guy called Larry Tracey wanted to start an Irish bobsleigh team. His contact details were attached.
Bobsleigh? Who was this guy? Tracey was a UK entrepreneur and sports enthusiast who was desperately trying to satisfy a new-found addiction. The year before, his wife had given him a gift of a week-long bobsleigh course at the St. Moritz track in Switzerland. He got a taste for it and wanted more. A few months later, he visited the Olympic venue at Innsbruck but wasn’t allowed race. The track was for international drivers only, he was told.
So, a simple solution then. Larry Tracey needed to become an international bobsleigh driver.
It all fitted together quite neatly. Tracey’s father was from Naas and his mother from Maguiresbridge, near Enniskillen. He had trialled for the Irish rowing team ahead of the 1972 Olympics and had retained a firm interest in the sport and the people around it. Henley was an annual meeting place for elite athletes, a perfect opportunity to network. Ireland would be represented there. And Ireland didn’t have a bobsleigh team.
Intrigued by that initial note, Macken and McDonagh contacted Tracey in the autumn of ’86. They were in. They were joined by Andrew Hodges, who had an athletics background. The paperwork went through smoothly.
The Olympic Council of Ireland rubber-stamped an application and so did the FIBT (International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation). The Irish team were ready to compete. One slight snag. Only Tracey had ever been in a bobsleigh before. So, an induction was required as Macken recalls: “We met Larry in London. We drove to Munich and then on to Austria. We went to the International Bobschool at the Innsbruck track at Igls and spent a week there training along with about ten other nations. We became very good friends with a guy who was there with an American accent. Turns out it was Prince Albert of Monaco.”
At the end of the week, there was a race between the competing countries. Macken and Hodges came first with Tracey and McDonagh in third. They finished ahead of the USA, Russia, France, Norway and Great Britain.
Poor Prince Albert, who’d go on to compete in five Winter Olympics between 1988 and 2002, was back in 9th.
Despite their inexperience, the Irish began to race on the international circuit. Tracey bankrolled the whole thing himself.
“Initially I funded it. I had built up a business. I was in a position to do so. It’s something I enjoy. I love sport and I have a lot of respect for the people involved. If I can help in any way, I’m happy to.”
There was an air of optimism in the Irish camp. But there was fear too. Hard crashes were commonplace. Stories of serious injuries and fatal accidents peppered casual conversations at events.
Only a few years previous, Jimmy Morgan, the driver for the US team, died during a race in Italy. Macken remembers the trepidation: “It’s scary. There were a number of guys I knew who were killed. I remember one race in particular. Bobs from Yugoslavia and Japan had both crashed in the same spot. Helicopters arrived to medivac the injured athletes away. We were watching this and were up next. The race just continued. But I found it okay, to be honest.”
The training regime was tricky. Macken and McDonagh were physically fit but more used to rowing’s slow and steady endurance rather than the explosive power of bobsleigh. Tracey had similar issues but roped in an old rowing friend, who had bobsleigh experience, to assist. Steve Redgrave trained with me. I had a bob on wheels and so we practiced the pushing in my driveway.”
Things were slightly less glamourous back in Dublin. Macken stored a bob in Islandbridge but had difficulty sourcing somewhere to use it.
“We took it over to Dolphin’s Barn ice rink once. But that was more a promotional thing than anything else. You had people laughing at us but we tried to simulate as best we could. We were serious about it.”
Throughout 1987, Macken, McDonagh, Tracey and a new arrival, Jim Cassidy, consistently put up solid times. The talk turned to making Irish history and sending a delegation to compete at a Winter Olympics for the first time. The Canadian city of Calgary was set to host the Games the following year and there was a buzz surrounding the smaller nations likely to feature in the bobsleigh event. There was a Mexican team made up of four brothers, Eduardo, Jorge, Adrian and Roberto who all worked in a Dallas restaurant. And, of course, there were the Jamaicans. According to Tracey, there was a communal feel on the circuit, despite the competitive edge.
“When we weren’t racing, we had a good time. The Jamaicans were pretty good at that too and between us, we could sing and drink with the best of them. Dudley Stokes, their driver, was a great personality. But serious on the track. They never beat us. Maybe that helped us to be friendly with them!”
The Irish team qualified for the 1988 Winter Olympics. The tricolour was flying in Calgary with the flags of the other competing nations. But Ireland never competed. Ten days before the opening ceremony, the Olympic Council of Ireland sent a one-sentence letter to the bobsleigh team informing them that their entry had been withdrawn. No reason was given.
Twenty-six years on, Tracey can only speculate on what happened. Twenty-six years on, the anger and frustration is still there.
“I think it was a clash between me and the then-president of the OCI (Des O’Sullivan). We didn’t ask them for anything, except to enter us in the Olympic Games. Maybe they went along with it but didn’t expect us to do so well and when we did, they pulled us out. We never got an explanation.”
The team was stunned. They went to the High Court in an attempt to get an injunction. The judge was sympathetic but refused the request. Time was up. Just like that, the dream was over.
Tracey went to the 1988 Winter Olympics as a fan. He watched as the world fell in love with the Jamaican bobsleigh team. But that wasn’t what irked him.
“The most galling thing was (ski-jumper) Eddie the Eagle. He was lauded. The British allowed him go and what he did was the equivalent of running the 100 metres in 33 seconds.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not allowed to be here but you’ve got this guy who’s not remotely in touch with the other competitors’.”
Four years later, in Albertville, there was an Irish bobsleigh team at a Winter Olympics. History was made. But Calgary ’88 remains the one that got away.