Billy Fiske

Billy Fiske was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but his taste for Olympic medals was all gold.

Born in 1911 in New York, son of a wealthy banker, young Billy went to school first in Chicago, and then in France. It was in Europe where the teenager discovered speed on ice – the Cresta Run in St. Moritz, Switzerland – where he would go screaming down the natural ice skeleton racing toboggan track for fun.

When US officials were looking to scrounge up people who could man a bobsleigh team for the 1928 St Moritz Winter Olympiad, the young American seemed like an obviously convenient choice for what would become a somewhat ragtag 5-member bobsleigh team, according to this Guardian article. In fact, three other members were selected because they answered an ad in the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune. Another member of the team was an entertainer named Clifford Grey, whose wealth allowed him to dabble in musical comedy and vaudeville.

And according to The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, none of the Team USA bobsleigh team, with the exception of Fiske, had never even laid eyes on a bobsleigh before. And yet, with Fiske at the front, Team USA had the fastest time. Granted, temperatures were 20 degrees celsius at the time of the competition, so the icy course was on the whole, slushy at best. Despite the conditions, Fiske steered the team to a time of 3 minutes and 20.5 seconds, about half a second ahead of another USA bobsleigh.

At the age of 16, Fiske was the youngest-ever gold medalist in a winter sport, a record held until 1992.

Four years later, when the Winter Games were held in his home state of New York, Fiske won his second gold at the Lake Placid Games. This time, according to an AP story from February 10, 1932, the Americans took the bobsleigh competition seriously, building “the finest, toughest, most daring run in the world down a barren mountainside” in Lake Placid, where “the boys learned to take its tremendous curves at 70 miles an hour without teeing off the top.” As a still-young 20-year Olympic sensation, Fiske headed a team that made Team USA the best bobsleighers in the world.

Billy Fiske in the 1928 Winter Olympics
Billy Fiske in the 1928 Winter Olympics

Again, the conditions were poor for the Olympic bobsleighers, many of whom complained about the slow times. According to an AP report from February 15, 1932, the organizers were worried that the state-of-art course, reputed to be the fastest in the world, was purposely doctored to slow it down. The icy surface was pared away and several of inches of snow was tossed onto the course. “….the blinding speed of the course was taken out by discontinuing the icy base, and making it a snow course instead of a glassy one. Now it matches the mush slower European runs.”

Fiske’s four-man team made it won the Lake Placid course routinely around 2 minutes across their four runs, which was apparently some 20 seconds slower than average speeds on the icy course. Still, no matter how fast or slow the course, the objective of the race is to be the faster overall. In the three heats, Fiske led his team to the fastest time in three of the four runs, thus winning Team USA gold in the four-man bobsleigh.

For Fiske, it was gold medal number 2. And yet, he had greater heights to climb still.

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Alexander Zubkov (L) and Alexey Voyevoda
Alexander Zubkov (L) and Alexey Voyevoda of Russia team 1 celebrate on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men’s Two-Man Bobsleigh on day ten of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Medals Plaza on February 18, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Unfortunately for Voyevoda, Zubkov was DQ’ed.

After finishing 11th in the medal standings at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, with a total of only 15 medals and 3 gold medals, Russia made a commitment to do better in their home country for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. In fact, Russia, finished at the top of the medal table with 33 total medals, including 13 gold medals.

Flash forward to 2017, and the table has turned.

After a review of the McLaren report on Russian state-sponsored doping prior to the Sochi Games, the IOC on December 5, 2017, banned the Russian National Olympic Committee from its participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. This decision means that no official team can represent Russia, but individuals from Russia can apply to participate in PyoengChang as a member of the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR), assuming it can be shown they were not part of the Russian doping machine.

As you can see in these tables from an NBC Sports article, Russia has suddenly plummeted in the Sochi medal tables from first to fifth. In the current standings, the USA is at the top of the overall medal count at 28, while Norway takes the lead in gold medals with 11.

Sochi Medal Rankings Top Five

This may not be the final revision. The IOC could decide to move other competitors up the medal ranks to replace the disqualified athletes. While the possible revisions below are dramatic, they actually would not have any further impact on the top five standings, although Latvia would move up from 23rd overall to 20th, thanks to the addition of 2 bronze medals.

  • Biathlon (women’s sprint): Russian silver medalist, Olga Vilukhina, was disqualified. Vita Semerenko of the Ukraine and Karin Oberhofer of Italy could move up to silver and bronze.
  • Biathlon (women’s relay): Members of the silver-medal winning Russian team, Olga Vilukhina, Yana Romanova and Olga Zaitseva, were disqualified. Norway could move up to silver, Czech Republic to Bronze.
  • Bobsleigh (two-man): Alexandr Zubkov was disqualified and stripped of his gold medal, which was unfortunate for his teammate Alexey Voyevoda, who was not disqualified. In this case, Switzerland could move up to gold, while the US could end up with a silver. Latvia might win bronze in this case.
  • Bobsleigh (four-man): As three of the four members of the Russian bobsleigh team, Alexandr Zubkov, Alexey Negodaylo and Dmitry Trunenkov, were disqualified, again Voyevoda appears to get stripped of his gold without being disqualified. Latvia and the US could move up to gold and silver. Another Russia team could have taken bronze, but they also had disqualified members on the team, which opens up the possibility of fifth place Great Britain taking bronze.
  • Cross-country skiing (men’s 50k freestyle): As written in an earlier post, Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin were disqualified, allowing Russian country man Ilia Chernousov to potentially trade his bronze medal for gold, with Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway and Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus moving up to silver and bronze.
  • Cross-country skiing (men’s team sprint): Like the 50k freestyle, Vylegzhanin’s DQ results in the stripping of Russia’s silver medal. Sweden and Norway could move up to silver and bronze.
  • Skeleton (men’s): Gold medalist, Alexander Tretyakov, was disqualified, leaving the door open for Martins Dukurs of Latvia to take gold, and American Matthew Antoine to take silver. Another Latvian, Tomass Dukurs, finished in fourth so is hoping for a medal as well.
  • Skeleton (women’s): Bronze medalist Elena Nikitina was disqualified, opening the door for a new bronze medalist, Katie Uhlaender of the US.
  • Speed skating (women’s 500-meters): Olga Fatkulina, was stripped of her silver medal, which means that Margot Boer of the Netherlands could claim silver, and Zhang Hong of China could be awarded a bronze.