Olympic Effort to Compete for Ireland’s First Bobsleigh Team

February 17, 2010 Updated: October 1, 2015
The First ever Irish Winter Olympic team at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.  (Courtesy of Gerry Macken )
The First ever Irish Winter Olympic team at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France. (Courtesy of Gerry Macken )

Ireland’s women’s bobsleigh team were cleared late last week to compete at the Winter Olympics. A legal challenge from the Australian Olympic Committee, to the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) had almost spelt an end to the women's bobsleigh team's Olympic dreams.

A compromise was reached between both National Olympic Committees that saw the Irish and Australians being allowed to compete.

This is not Ireland's first venture into the sport of Olympic bobsleighing. Ireland has been represented at the Winter games before and the two athletes initially responsible for Ireland's adventures at Winter Olympics are Gerry Macken and Pat McDonagh.

The Epoch Times caught up with Mr Gerry Macken, one of Ireland's first ever Winter Olympians who competed in the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville, France.

Gerry explained that the Irish bobsleigh adventure started back in 1986 at Henley Royal Regatta in the UK, where he and Pat were competing with Neptune Rowing Club.

During the regatta a gentleman by the name of Mr Larry Tracey, a successful businessman from Marlow approached the rowers with the idea of starting up an Irish Bobsleigh Association as this was what was required in order for a country to compete at the Olympics. Mr Tracey was born in Britain but both his parents were from Ireland so he was thinking that he would compete for Ireland too.

Having a rowing background Mr Tracey knew that he would likely find enough people from that sport who would be crazy enough to take on a challenge of mastering the bobsleigh.

Both Gerry and Pat had very impressive rowing CVs, Gerry had won Senior championships in Ireland with Trinity College Dublin and Neptune. He also competed at four world rowing championships where he narrowly lost out on claiming a podium position. Pat had similar credentials, he had also represented Ireland at the summer games in Moscow 1980 and Seoul 1988.

In order to compete in a bobsleigh event one needed a driving licence, which was governed by the International Bobsleigh Federation (FIBT).

Therefore the guys had to go back to school but this time it was bobsleigh school at the site of the 1976 Winter Olympics in Insbruck, Austria. Here they were taught the ways of the bobsleigh.

As we have seen at the Olympics in Vancover, any sport that utilises the bobsleigh track can be extremely dangerous so one needs to know all about the equipment that is being used, how to assemble, drive and maintain your bobsleigh as well as other safety procedures.

At the end of the training programme a competition is held to give the competitors their first taste of bobsleigh racing.

Gerry smirked and told me that he won the race but not only did he win it but he beat Prince Albert of Monaco into second place.

The school is also a means of bringing new people and nations into the sport, so in 1986 Ireland had gained its first two officially qualified bobsleigh drivers in Gerry and Pat. Where to now?

At this point Larry Tracey bowed out of the competitive side of the sport and became the President of the Irish Federation.

With their two fresh driving licences Pat and Gerry headed out onto the bobsleigh circuit where they competed from 1986 until 1988 as they endeavoured to gain qualification for the winter Olympics in Calgary. According to Gerry they met a lot of resistance from the Olympic council in Ireland mainly because Pat and Gerry were still rowing at the time.

It is unclear why but the Irish Olympic Council pulled the entry and the Winter Olympic dreams had to wait another four years. A shame because the Jamaicans made their appearance at Calgary, a team that the Irish had beaten on the world circuit.

Around about this time Terry McHugh and other athletes from track and field became involved.

When the team of Pat McDonagh, Gerry Mack, Malachy Sheridan and Terry McHugh went to the winter games in 1992 they were the first Irish people to compete in the winter games in any discipline.

Both Pat and Terry became the first Irish men to compete in both winter and summer games. I guess technically speaking Pat was the first Irish man ever to achieve this feat as he was driving the sled and therefore crossed the finish line before Terry McHugh who was his break man.

I asked Gerry if he thought Ireland could ever compete at the highest level in Bobsleigh or not.

Gerry's reply was he really enjoyed his time competing at the Bobsleigh, he and the other guys trained very hard and did their best but they also had fun doing it.

On whether Ireland could compete with teams such as the Swiss he said “it would be like getting a Swiss hurling team to take on Kilkenny, if you want to compare like with like.”