Meet the U.S. Army’s Team of Crack Olympic Bobsledders

As a teenager, Mike Kohn dreamt being both a soldier and professional athlete. He's found an unusual way of combining the two. Kohn, now an Army officer, is in Sochi as a member of the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team.

On Friday, Kohn -- a lieutenant in the Army National Guard, a three-time Olympian, and the current coach of the U.S. team -- joined eight other soldiers for the start of the Winter Olympics. Of the 230 athletes the United States has sent to Sochi, nine are members of the Army: six competitors and three coaches. All nine will be competing or coaching in bobsled, skeleton, or luge, sports that involve shooting through a narrow half-pipe track at an incredibly high speed. Of the 14 men that make up the U.S. bobsledding team in Sochi, four are soldiers.

What makes a good bobsledder? Speed, strength, fearlessness, and, apparently, a military background.

American soldier-Olympians perform remarkably well in the Olympics. Of the 446 who have participated since 1948, 111 have won medals. "It's the discipline, willingness to work hard. They've just gotten it down," WCAP Sports Specialist Mark Dunivan told Foreign Policy. At Sochi, the American army bobsledders will be competing against members of the German and Russian militaries.

The soldier-athletes owe their Olympic training to the Army's World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), which launched in 1997 and currently focuses on 15 sports, four of which are winter disciplines. In the 2012 London Summer Olympics, soldier-athletes competed in wrestling, shooting, track and field, and modern pentathlon -- none of which are particularly surprising for a group of service members.

But bobsledding? It's perhaps not as strange as it sounds. For one, you have to be a good team player. "You have to be in sync in getting into the sled, in sync in pushing," Dunivan told FP. "Being soldiers you have to adapt to different personalities, different people".

While bobsledding doesn't deliver quite the rush of getting shot at, the sport still includes what Kohn called the "danger aspect," the predictable thrill of flirting with death and living to tell the tale. Bobsleds can achieve up to 90 mph and crashes are common. During the 2010 Vancouver, Olympics Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia died in a luge training accident.

Moreover, bobsledding is a sport that doesn't require a great deal of finesse. Kohn called it a "blue collar sport" despite the fact that sleds aren't cheap  -- this year's model, for instance, is designed by luxury carmaker BMW and cost an undisclosed sum of money to build. "It's not tennis, it's not golf," Kohn told FP. Athleticism is crucial, with bobsledders having to be "strong, powerful, fast," the basic requirements of a good soldier.

Many WCAP athletes who join the program come with backgrounds in football or track and field. Moreover, switching to bobsled from other sports is a fairly common phenomenon. The former Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones made this year's women's team. Herschel Walker, the former running back who won the Heisman Trophy in 1982, competed in bobsled in the 1992 Olympic Games.

But Kohn, who said he had "more fun, more honor, more reward in going to the Olympic game as a soldier-athlete for [his] nation" than he would have had in the NFL, argued soldier-athletes have another crucial advantage. There is more pressure to win. The soldiers represent more than just themselves and their nation, but "every soldier out there." Kohn called it a "bigger responsibility," and said that "there is no greater honor than to be a soldier-Olympian."

Olympic sliding sports have a strong roster of military alumni. Since the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo,  Army athletes and coaches in bobsled and luge participated in 11 games, including Sochi. In the late 1960s and 1970s the U.S. Navy bobsled team led by Lt. Paul Lamey was a powerhouse on the track, winning several consecutive national and North American titles and competing in World Championships and two Olympic games. The six-man team consisted of three members elite Navy SEALs and inspired the documentary "Blue on Ice."

American soldier-Olympians perform remarkably well in the Olympics. Of the 446 who have participated, 111 won medals. "It's the discipline, willingness to work hard. They've just gotten it down," Dunivan told FP. At Sochi, the American army bobsledders will be competing against members of the German and Russian militaries.

Despite all their sporting careers, WCAP trainees are still soldiers. "All the athletes maintain their military skills and careers as well," Cpt. Scott Christie, the commander of the WCAP program, told FP. Among this year's Olympic team there are engineers, a member of the infantry, and a military intelligence officer. Kohn said that after they return from Sochi, the Olympians will be going back to their army jobs and schools. In exchange for their training, WCAP athletes participate in the army's recruiting program, primarily as promoters.

And while the army allows most WCAP trainees to treat sport as their full-time job, the occasional soldier-athlete does get deployed overseas. And sometimes they even choose to do so. After participating in the Vancouver olympics, Sgt. John Napier, who is not on the Sochi roster, asked for a deployment and was sent to Afghanistan. "I just kept asking to go because I couldn't get away from the guilt of being here while other guys were over there fighting," Napier told the New York Times in 2010.

Capt. Chris Fogt, a brakeman, was deployed to Iraq as a military intelligence officer right after his Olympic performance in Vancouver in 2010. Kohn, the coach, remarked that though Fogt had to work on his sprinting after he returned from Iraq -- deployment training involves more endurance elements -- he "got in, got off the plane, got into a bobsled, didn't miss a beat."

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Pussy Riot Comes to Brooklyn Only to Go Mainstream

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- It's 12:30 am, and the crowd at the now half-empty Barclays Center looks drained after a four-and-a-half hour show dedicated to human rights and organized by Amnesty International. That all changes when Yoko Ono comes on stage, grunting, screeching, and moaning, "We're gonna make it," over and over. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips stands behind her on a podium entwined in LED lights, lips painted blue, waving the long shiny fringe of his sleeves. The audience shakes its exhaustion and suddenly finds itself singing along to the Beatles' hit "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Glitter shoots in the air.

Thus wound down Amnesty International's dissident-chic benefit concert, a show built around an appearance by Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, two members of the radical feminist punk collective Pussy Riot. On Dec. 21, Russian authorities released the two women 18 months into their two-year jail sentences for staging a performance mocking Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral. They were freed after they became the focus of intense international pressure -- and Putin decided he needed some positive press before the Sochi Olympics. And on Wednesday night, they joined a bevy of celebrities -- Madonna, Blondie, Lauryn Hill, and others -- for a show with the amorphous title "Bringing Human Rights Home."

But, first, a complication: Just before the show began, the remaining members of Pussy Riot expelled Nadya and Masha from the group. "They are no longer Pussy Riot" six members of the group wrote. "We're a female separatist collective," the six said. "We never accept money for our performances ... we only stage illegal performances in unexpected public places." Another irony: Forty-five percent of the "home" where the artists performed is owned by the Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, one of the giants of his country's post-Soviet economy and a Kremlin-approved opposition politician.  

So what was it all good for?

Following their "punk prayer" in a Moscow cathedral and Putin's harsh response, the West eagerly adopted Pussy Riot as the latest and greatest anti-Kremlin dissidents, but the group grew out of a more radical ferment than many of the group's Western backers would like to admit. Former members of the Voina political art collective, the women of Pussy Riot don't preach a mealy-mouthed free-speech liberalism but are instead opposed to the whole "corporate state system." Voina's art-protest stunts included Nadya having sex on film while nine-months pregnant at a biology museum to ridicule then-president Dmitry Medvedev and painting a giant penis on a St. Petersburg draw-bridge, which, when raised, faced the local headquarters of the FSB, the successor to the KGB.

A few hours before the Barclays concert, where they would be introduced by none other than Madonna, Nadya and Masha sat down for a press conference. I asked the pair what it was like to participate in such a pop culture event, considering their counter-culture background. "I think that's insulting to the other artists present here," Nadya replied. This was maybe 20 minutes after Bob Geldof, the founder of the LiveAid concerts, said that he was "ashamed of his profession" and of "rock'n'roll's complacency."

Though they're loath to admit it, Wednesday's concert represented a turn away from Nadya and Masha's radical roots. So it was that this breakaway faction of Pussy Riot came to Brooklyn to go mainstream. Madonna, a self-described "freedom-fighter" who spoke of receiving death threats after her performances in Russia were bashed for promoting "homosexual behaviors," introduced the pair. She asked for a "hell yeah" for Pussy Riot and thanked them for making it possible to say "pussy" in her household. That was a familiar theme throughout the night. The actress Susan Sarandon said she relished the way she could now say "pussy, pussy, pussy" over and over. Debbie Harry of Blondie, when asked what she thought of Pussy Riot, gestured toward her crotch in a bad-ass, rock-star sort of way.

When they finally appeared on stage, Masha and Nadya had shed their technicolor balaclavas and tights and traded them in for understated T-shirts adorned with crucifixes but partially covered by blazers. Today, they aim to start an organization that will fight for the rights of Russian inmates, and the two women delivered a passionate, emotional, and angry appeal for Russia's political prisoners. They read the closing statements delivered in court earlier Wednesday by the so-called Bolotnaya Square protesters, who have been jailed and prosecuted for demonstrating against Putin the day before his 2012 inauguration. By the end of their speech, Masha and Nadya had the crowd theatrically screaming "Russia will be free" along with them.

But did anyone at Barclays know what they were talking about?

Earlier in the night, I conducted a little survey on the red carpet of the night's stars. I asked them what they considered the most pressing human rights issue of the day. Debbie Harry shrugged, helplessly shook her head, and walked away. Isaac Slade of the pop-rock band The Fray delivered a lengthy answer about human trafficking, citing statistics and what seemed like a genuine interest in the topic. The very fidgety Wayne Coyne first asked me what Foreign Policy does and why I was at the concert. He then went on a slightly incomprehensible diatribe about how everyone should be able to do what they want, ending his rant by emphasizing the importance of legalizing marijuana. And then there was Colbie Caillat, the bizarrely tan pop sensation, who when asked about Pussy Riot answered that she "just learned about them."

As for the concert's attendees that I spoke to, most knew little to nothing about Pussy Riot. They had come for the music; Pussy Riot was a sideshow: "I didn't know this was a charity concert," "Who are they?" "I know they were in prison, I don't know why," "I'm only here for Ms. Lauryn Hill,  she's my favorite artist."

Then again, the show's organizers may have had the ignorant in mind as their target audience all along. Michael O'Reilly, the deputy executive director at Amnesty, told FP that the group hoped to launch another era of activism and mobilize a new generation of celebrity-activists. "It's a re-birth of the spirit," he said. Wednesday's concert was the first arena-size show hosted by Amnesty since the uber-popular 1986 "Conspiracy of Hope" and 1988 "Human Rights Now!"concert tours featuring stars like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Tracy Chapman.

And perhaps Amnesty did succeed in creating some new human rights activists. By telling the world about their unfair trial and the horrors of Russia's prison system, Nadya and Masha have surely contributed -- at least a little -- in giving some Americans a greater sense of the injustice and cruelty of Putin's Russia.

In announcing the schism in Pussy Riot, Nadya and Masha's former colleagues sounded a note of sadness: "We have lost two friends, two ideological teammates, but the world has gained two brave rights activists," they wrote. Perhaps, after seeing Nadya and Masha, the world gained more such activists on Wednesday.


Theo Wargo/Getty Images for CBGB