Bobsled dissension?

You mean I scaled a mountain early this morning in search of a volcano among bobsledders, the most overrated athletes in the Winter Olympics?

Anybody can ride a four-man sled? An acquaintance did and recalled: "I got as drunk as I've ever been -- and 15 seconds down the run I was stone-cold sober. The only thing I remember is the driver screaming. It cost $10 to get my drunk back afterwards."

The notion is not too farfetched that a world-class four-man team and daring driver and three fools from any bowling team in the land. Which brings us to why I trudged up Mount Van Hoevenberg:

Willie Davenport was there.

Until one of the best athletes in American track and field history decided it would be useful to have matching Winter and Summer Olympic gold medals, bobsledding got all the national attention it deserved next to none.

The run here is the only one in the Western Hemiphere.

When Davenport arrived here as a member of the No. 1 U.S. four-man sled, so did U.S. bobsledding. And this helps explain the fuss that developed here Monday night: deeply devoted bobsledders resent the man who brought them attention -- especially since Willie Davenport is not very good at the sport.

Any coach with a sence of press relations would not have allowed the internal bickering to become public. U.S. Coach Gary Sheffield probably has not seen five reporters in his life, so when he let it slip during a vague press conference that he wanted to bump two men from the No. 1 team, some potentially explosive conclusions were formed.

One of them was that the decisions were racially inspired, for Davenport and another black, Jeff Gadley, man the No. 3 and No. 3 positions in the back of Bob Hickey's sled. This was fueled when the driver of the second U.S. sled, Howard Silver, talked about a quote attributed to Davenport that said bobsledders were "white and rich."

"That 'rich-and-white' stuff, that really fried everybody's minds," Siler said. "That fried my mind. It's not true. We're not rich and we have no racial problems here. It's not because he's black. Jeff Gadley's black."

Gadley, not Davenport, was the first black to make an official American bobsledding team. In truth, a Canadian, Bob Wilson, was the first black Olympian. But Davenport received the Olympian attention. He coveted it, for one of his goals is to become a vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Why had Gadley, who with Brent Rushlaw finished 10th in the two-man competitions in last year's world championships, escaped notice as a pioneer?

"He ain't got any gold," Davenport said.

As matters developed today, it was Davenport and another relative neophyte, Jeff Jordan, the coach had wanted to replace rather than Davenport and Gadley. Bobsled insiders regard Gadley as quite good, with Siler adding:

"If there had been any radical problems up here when Willie Davenport got here, he wouldn't have gotten a sled."

After practice today, Davenport tried to explain the white-and-rich quote. He said it was in response to a question, that a reporter had used those words but the phase had been attributed to him.

Davenport said the interview was in early February. Some reporters recalled an interview with Davenport in early December and him volunteering: "This is a rich, white man's sport. I'm not rich. I don't know why blacks don't try it. Is it too cold."

Almost as intriguing had been Sheffield admitting his attempt to try new men on Hickey's sled, but that Hickey had refused. Sheffield had successfully rearranged the sled for Siler, his longtime friend. Does the U.S. coach have any authority on the U.S. team? Was he right?

"In one way, it's a good idea," said Jordan. "But we decided that we wanted to stay together. We started together, worked together and we want to finish together. Everybody's worked a lot on that sled and he's gonna tell that man he can't slide? It's not that it's right or wrong. It's what we want to do."

In theory, Davenport should be the ideal No. 3 man, for the position requires both speed and strength. And the fact that the sled of Davenport and Jordan, who scarcely had competed until two months ago, had outrun sleds with more experienced crewman added to the resentment.

Sheffield said he once borrowed $1,6000 for a new sled in 1960 while he still was in the army and added: "I was eating K rations, driving around in a $50 car and making payments of $150 a month on a sled."

As everyone on the hill watched Davenport, some noticed that he did not seem to be grasping his role as well as anticipated. Some of the other competitors snicked when he jumped into the sled far too soon during one run this week.

"He stepped on Hickey's foot," Sheffield said. "To save himself from falling, he had to jump into the sled."

Sheffield realizes the delicacy of his situation, trying to determine what is best for the U.S. team while acknowledging that Davenport could attract much-needed support to bobsledding. He admitted that driver comfort is more important than a coach's ego.

"After the start," he said, "it's 90 percent driver and 10 percent equipment. If Bobby's happy. I've got to be."

And what is Hickey's mental state?The push-time for the second sled today, after two men were changed, was dramatically better than for the first sled. Yet Hickey's sled got to the bottom much faster.

This seems to indicate that Hickey is the superior driver but Siler has more help.

"Personally," said Davenport, "it doesn't imply anything. But it tells us we've got work to do."

"I don't want to say anything 'till after the race," Hickey said.

Amid the U.S. controversy, the Canadian team, a genuine contender, with Wilson as brakeman, sped to the second-fastest run in the history of the one-mile course. Scarcely anyone noticed.