Originally created 01/31/98

U.S. bobsledding program is whistling Dixie



ATLANTA -- Randy Jones gets puzzled looks when he takes his bobsled -- fitted with wheels instead of blades -- onto the streets of suburban Atlanta.

"How fast will it go?" people want to know.

"What are you doing?" others ask. "Why do you have a sled here in Atlanta?"

Good question.

Even though there is nary a bobsled track in Georgia -- and certainly no plans to build one -- this sweltering state in the heart of the South has become one of the hubs of America's Olympic bobsledding program.

When they're not competing in Europe or training on the bobsled runs in Utah and Lake Placid, N.Y., five members of the 12-man team that will represent the United States in Nagano, Japan, make their homes in Georgia.

A sixth Georgian, Mike Dionne of Alpharetta, was barred from the Olympics on Friday after testing positive for a banned stimulant. A U.S. spokesman said the stimulant was in a cold medicine Dionne was taking in November, when the test was made. The three-month ban runs through the end of the Olympics Feb. 22.

Dionne and Chip Minton of Macon are Georgia natives, while the others were lured by the warm climate -- ideal for offseason training -- and the bevy of job opportunities, essential in a sport that remains a largely amateur endeavor in this country.

Jones, a native of Winston-Salem, N.C., moved to Atlanta in 1994 after taking part in his first Olympics at Lillehammer, Norway. He found a job as a computer technician, bought a home in suburban Smyrna and met his wife-to-be.

"When we're in Europe, we're in cold places all the time," he said. "You're just longing for heat when the season is done. When you're in training, you can get more done in a warm area. You just feel better. The heat makes me want to go work out. When it's cold, I want to stay inside, just sleep and lay around."

Though snowy European countries still dominate the World Cup bobsled circuit, the Olympics have become increasingly populated with warm-weather countries since Jamaica injected some reggae into the 1988 Calgary Games and inspired the movie "Cool Runnings." Since then, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Trinidad also have sent bobsled teams to the Olympics.

The other Georgia members of the team are: Garrett Hines, who grew up in Memphis, Tenn., and decided to pursue a bobsledding career in Georgia as part of the Army's world-class athlete program; Brian Leturgez, who moved from Indiana to take advantage of the warm weather; and John Kasper, a native of Iowa who wound up in the South because of his wife's job.

The U.S. bobsledding program has held tryouts around the country searching for athletes with speed and power who can help the Americans become competitive in a sport that has been dominated by the Europeans.

Jones, for example, played football at Duke University. Hines competed in track and football at Southern Illinois. And Minton is a former prison guard who made his Olympic debut in Norway and moonlights as a professional wrestler who struts around the ring draped in medals and bills himself "Mr. World Class."

"I've tried everything," said Minton, who once auditioned for TV's "American Gladiators." "I'm not letting anything go by."

Minton, Jones and Hines will serve as pushers and brakemen for the sled driven by Brian Shimer, the country's most prominent bobsledder. Dionne had been teamed with Leturgez and Kasper on another of the U.S. four-man teams. It wasn't immediately known who would replace Dionne.

"The people in Georgia are not real focused on bobsled," Minton said. "But really, no one is. No one does it. There are people who ski and skate, so a lot of people have a bond with that. But no one bobsleds, just the 12 guys who are on the U.S. team. When people do watch bobsledding on TV, they just want to see someone crash.

"Like NASCAR racing," he added.

Now he's talking a language his fellow Southerners can understand.