When Roberto Tames closes his eyes, he can still see that grainy television footage of Italian daredevil Eugenio Monti as he hurtles to a thrilling 1968 Olympic bobsleigh victory in Grenoble.
“I was four-years-old,” he says. “But even though I was very small, these athletes became my heroes. I loved watching them flying down the track. When I was seven, I got a wheel cart. I dreamed I was a bobsleigh pilot and my brothers and I would go racing down the hills of Mexico City.”
One of the most famous Winter Olympics moments revolves around bobsleigh and how a group of Jamaicans wound up at the start-line in Calgary 30 years ago. Other curious oddities competed in Canada that year too: a luger from Puerto Rico, a Fijian cross-country skier, Britain’s Eddie the Eagle. But those stories overshadowed what was arguably the most romantic and unheralded story of them all. Eduardo, Jorge, Adrian and Roberto: the four bobsleigh brothers from Mexico.
“In 1984, I saw the Mexican flag being carried in the opening ceremony in Sarajevo,” Roberto, the youngest brother, says. “It was an Austrian prince, Hubertus von Hohenlohe, who had a Mexican mother and was representing our country in skiing. I thought if he could be there then me and my brothers could be at the next Olympics competing in bobsleigh. They liked the idea. We agreed that we wouldn’t brake until the last two corners and we might win the gold medal. We didn’t know that in bobsleigh there was no braking at all until you cross the finish line.”
Inspired, the siblings contacted the Mexican Olympic Committee and explained their proposal. Inevitably, they were greeted with laughter. But it was agreed that, as long as they didn’t seek any funding, they could do as they wished.
When the brothers sought further assistance from the sport’s international governing body, they were encouraged to attend an upcoming coaching clinic scheduled for upstate New York in May 1984.
“My father was not a rich man but he made a great effort to find the money so we could go,” Roberto says. “We drove from Mexico City to Lake Placid in an old Volkswagen van. It took us four days to get there.”
Their lack of experience was apparent when they arrived at the clinic, but the brothers’ enthusiasm won them plenty of admiration and led to an invitation to further their development deep in central Germany. But before they were allowed into the inner sanctum of the drivers’ school in Oberhof, they needed to sharpen their knowledge of the sport and were dispatched for a week’s tutorial in nearby Konigsee.
“Everything was new,” Roberto remembers. “We had never been to Europe before and never even seen snow. We were advised to compete as two separate two-man teams and the first time I got on a sled, I was the brakeman at the back. We went down from the half-track but it was still so scary. We started accelerating more and more and when we got to the corner, the sled moved so fast to the side that it was close to impossible to stay in.
“We almost left that first day but I said to my brother, Adrian, ‘Look, we cannot quit now. We have to finish the school and then we can decide if we’ll never come back’. So we stuck it out and survived. When we went back to Mexico we decided to continue. It’s such a big adrenalin rush. You have to make decisions so fast and if you make a mistake you’re upside down. I’ve sky-dived and that’s a good rush but bobsleigh’s is greater because you are driving it. You are in control.
“The next year we went to Calgary for the first time. It was a new track there and everyone said it was very safe. But we proved them wrong! Adrian and I were the first bob ever to flip on that track, at Corner 7.”
Reaching the Olympics quickly became an obsession for the family but an expensive one. Without financial support from a benefactor, sponsor or Mexico’s Olympic Committee, Roberto and his brothers decided to leave home.
“We moved to Dallas to live and work,” he says. “We could make more money there and be able to pay for our sport. We used to train on the streets. We built a wheel sled with some blueprints we got from the federation and every morning we pushed it around a school parking lot. In the afternoon we’d do some track training and some weights in a gym.
“We all worked in a Mexican restaurant called Cantina Laredo. Everyone was very supportive, our colleagues and the customers. They had pictures of us on the walls. We sold t-shirts. And we got sponsorship money from them too, which was huge for us.”
After honing their craft as best they could, the brothers were authorized to compete at the 1988 Olympics as part of an 11-person Mexican team. But there were still plenty of problems. Without a coach, they were relying on each other for guidance. And there was a more pressing concern: they didn’t own any sleds.
In December 1987, the brothers were put in touch with an Edmonton-based photographer, Brian Gavriloff, who had trialled for the Canadian national bobsleigh team years earlier.
“I had bought a sled because I wanted to start driving,” he recalls. “Somehow my name had cropped up, the Mexicans contacted me about renting it and I was able to make a few bucks. Everything was done through correspondence. We painted it the colours they wanted too. I think it was basic black and they may have put some decos on it themselves. I remember that it was all quite short notice so when we were loading the sled to drive to the Olympics in February, the paint was still drying.”
The brothers hustled another sled and paid for them both with their their savings and the modest sponsorship from their employers. The leftover cash was put towards their race suits, which they had specially made.
Accompanied by their parents, they left Dallas and began the arduous drive north in their trusty VW. Back in the restaurant, next to their names on the roster was written ‘OLYMPICS’.
The journey to Calgary took 53 hours.
“We had little experience driving on icy roads and highways,” Roberto says. “We didn’t know that we had to put chains on the tyres so we had a few small incidents. While one of us drove, the rest slept. We didn’t have any trouble at the Canadian border but the only problem was that we crossed in Winnipeg and it was freezing when we got out of the car to have our passports stamped.”
Once they arrived, the brothers were christened The Quatro Amigos. To the vast majority, they were figures of fun and on an early training run, they crashed Gavriloff’s sled.
He laughs at the memory. “I think that cost them some more money! There were all of these weird things that popped up at an Olympics for the first time. The entertainment was off the charts. A Mexican bobsleigh team? It’s like the Gobi Desert Canoe Club. But I kinda thought, ‘If the Jamaicans are competing, how much weirder can it be having a Mexican team here?’
“When the dream is big enough, the facts don’t count. I felt that if it wasn’t going to happen for me then maybe I could be part of someone else’s dream. You can’t take it with you so you might as well use it all up.”
The brothers completed all of their Olympic runs, something the United States, Portugal and the Japanese failed to do. Forever side by side, just one hundredth of a second separated both Mexican sleds. Overall, from 41 teams, they finished 36th and 37th - more than 16 seconds behind gold medalists the Soviet Union.
Still, they made their mark and entered the Guinness World Records as the most siblings to compete in a single Winter Olympics event. Four years later, things were different in Albertville. Adrian took part in the four-man event while Eduardo was a reserve team member. Afterwards, they all went their separate ways.
But for Roberto, bobsleigh remained an obsession for a lot longer. Thanks to some sponsorship from a hair products company he competed at his third Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City in 2002. The strain and stress – both mental and financial – had caused marital problems and he told his wife he was ready to walk away from the sport for good. But there was a world championship on the horizon and the itch quickly returned. Inevitably, an ultimatum followed but Roberto chose bobsleigh over his marriage and the pair were divorced in 2004.
“Bobsleigh was my life,” he admits. “And when somebody said ‘It’s bobsleigh or me’, the decision was taken. We never had any idea how hard it would be and what we had to sacrifice. But, ultimately, you have to make bobsleigh your priority.”
It stopped being Roberto’s priority in 2005.
At the age of 40 he was desperately trying to qualify for another Winter Olympics in Turin when a leg injury began to flare up. He took a banned substance to help aid his recovery and was hit with a suspension. And that was the end.
Now based in the beach resort of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s west coast and working as a swimming instructor, sometimes he’ll gaze at the Pacific Ocean and his mind will return to Calgary and that first Olympics experience three decades ago.
The memories resonate even further now. Eduardo passed away in 2012.
“The dream I had when I was seven years old to represent Mexico in the Winter Olympics came true. It was a difficult and long road but if I was born again, I wouldn’t change a thing. 1988 is the most special, of course. We competed in other Olympics but getting there with all my brothers is impossible to top. I am very proud. It’s hard to ask God for anything else.”