Host City: Salt Lake City, United States
Venue(s): Utah Olympic Park, Park City, Utah
Date Started: February 19, 2002
Date Finished: February 19, 2002
Format: Two runs, total time determined placement.
Although the history of women in bobsledding was a long one, and famously Katherine Dewey had piloted her team to victory in the 1940 US Championship, the first Women’s World Championship was held as late as the year 2000. Swiss pilot Françoise Burdet won the 2001 version of the World Champion but her victory was somewhat of a surprise as the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 World Cup seasons had been dominated by the American pairing of Jean Racine and Jen Davidson. Racine and Davidson’s performances dipped at the beginning of the Olympic season and, despite having previously described as her best friend, the decision was made to replace Davidson with novice brakewoman Gea Johnson. Johnson herself was a controversial figure having served a suspension for steroid abuse while competing in track and field as a heptathlete and had only six months experience as a bobsledder. Whilst the form of the top American sled had dipped the German teams had advanced to the top of the world rankings. Former Olympic luge medalist Suzi Erdmann had converted to bobsledding since the Nagano Games and topped the World Cup standings ahead of compatriot Sandra Prokoff.
Unlike the men’s event the inaugural women’s Olympic title was decided over two runs contested on a single day. The sensation of the first run was the performance of the USA II sled of pilot [Jill Bakken] and brakewoman Vonetta Flowers. In a similar situation to the USA I sled Flowers had come into the team at late notice, replacing Bakken’s regular partner Shauna Rohbock, and her background in sprinting was put to good use as the team recorded impressive start times. USA II actually lengthened their winning margin slightly with their second run impressive and were a third of a second clear of the first of two successive German crews. This was the first Olympic victory by the United States since the 1948 Games. The gamble made by the top American crew to include Gea Johnson failed disastrously as she suffered a hamstring injury and USA I could not finish higher than fifth.
The performance of the Dutch team in sixth was their nation’s best ever Winter Olympic finish outside the various disciplines of skating.
A feature of the first Olympic bobsleigh competition was the appearance of athletes who had been drafted in from other sports. The Italian pairing of Gerda Weissensteiner and Antonella Bellutti were both former Olympic champions. Weissensteiner had won the women’s luge in Albertville whilst Bellutti’s titles came in track cycling at Atlanta and Sydney. One former Olympic champion was barred from competing. Atlanta 100 m hurdles champion Ludmila Engquist had been a part of the Swedish team on the World Cup circuit but registered a positive drug test shortly before the Games.
In hindsight perhaps the most important feature of this event was the sight of African-American Vonetta Flowers on the top step of the Olympic podium. Flowers was the first black champion in the 78 year history of the Winter Games.