Lake Placid, N.Y. — In the competition for an Olympic medal, American bobsledder Jeff Jost is bucking long odds. If enthusiasm could carry the day, the personable New York State trooper from the hamlet of Burke near the Canadian border would be right up there. Unfortunately, however, winning the US title in a banged-up two-year-old sled on the bumpy track here is a far cry from Olympic success against the East Germans, Swiss, and Russians with their high-tech equipment designed especially for the smooth, wide curves of the new combined luge-bobsled run at Sarajevo.
Realistically, a top 10 finish in either the two-man or four-man events would be an achievement for the Americans, while a medal would be considered a stunning upset in the bobsled world.
Memories of the US hockey victory over the Soviets in 1980 still linger, however, giving American underdogs in all sports hope that something like that could happen for them. And Jost is definitely one of those optimists.
''I'm going to finish in the top 10; I'm shooting for the top six; and the way it's going for my team, we're going to win a medal,'' he says.
Jost has had his share of disappointments, including 1980 when he was a pusher on the USA No. 1 two-man entry until he was suddenly replaced two days before the Olympics. This time, though, as driver of the US champion four-man entry, no one can take him off the Olympic sled. And despite all the obstacles, he remains confident.
''I trained at Sarajevo 10 days last fall and I see that track in my mind every day,'' he said shortly after his team won the US title. ''I know just what I want to do. It's so much smoother than Lake Placid. There are no long straightaways where the sled can bang up against the side. There is nothing there to break concentration. You can get through a run without ever hitting the wall.''
The US team has strong pushers, and is expected to be competitive with most of the European sleds off the mark. But regardless of the starts and his concentration, Jost, whose best finish in a previous international race was 11th , will be at a disadvantage. His equipment just isn't up to that of the competition.
Equipment has always played a role in the outcome of bobsledding, but this year more than ever, with sophisticated aerodynamic designs and new suspension systems separating some teams from the rest of the field.
According to Brent Rushlaw, who will drive USA II in the four-man event and USA I in the two-man, ''The equipment is worth 50 percent and the team 50 percent.''
Unlike Jost, a third-year driver, and Fred Fritsch, who will make his international championship debut driving the other two-man US sled, Rushlaw is a veteran who will be driving in his third Olympics. He finished sixth in the two-man event in 1980, and at Sarajevo last month he had a fourth place finish in a training race.
Can he improve on the finish at Lake Placid?
''Probably not,'' he says.
East Germany, which has dominated the sport since 1976, looms as the favorite again in both events. The East Germans have worked hard to learn the Olympic track, even passing up the world championships here last year to get in more training at Sarajevo. Driver Bernhard Germeshausen, who was on winning sleds in 1976 and 1980, will be bidding to become the first bobsledder ever to win gold medals in three consecutive Olympics.
The Swiss team also is strong, featuring five former world champion drivers. But the Swiss were stunned earlier this winter by the Soviets, who will be entering their first Olympic bobsled competition ever at Sarajevo. The Soviets won the European championshis at Innsbruck with new sleds featuring a radical bullet-shaped design.
Several inches shorter and narrower than conventional European models, the new sleds gave the Russians a big edge in the crucial push start - and only the relative inexperience of their drivers has allowed other sleds back into the competition so far this winter.
Asked how good the new sleds were, Switzerland's world two-man champion Ralph Pichler said: ''With one of them, I could take two seconds off my time each run.''
Because of its cramped quarters, some say the new Russian sled is unsafe. But discussion of safety and whether or not the sled will be sanctioned to continue racing won't take place until after the Olympics.
Rushlaw, though, doesn't think the Russians will stand up to the competition at Sarajevo.
''Their drivers are inexperienced,'' he says. ''They're inconsistent. On one run they'll set a track record, but they can't keep it up for four heats.''
That's good news for the East Germans and Swiss. The Americans will give it their best shot too, of course, and if it turns out to be not enough, they'll still know they did all they could with the equipment available to them.
And as Jost, who plans to retire after these Olympics, says: ''I've worked for this a long time. No matter what happens, they can't take it away from me.''