If you’re brushing up on your knowledge of winter sports in preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, you’ll want to learn about the world of bobsleigh. This ice-based team sport was made popular in the classic comedy, Cool Runnings, but there’s probably a lot you don’t know about it.
From its colorful history to the surprising athleticism required in the sport (it turns out it’s not quite as easy as tobogganing down a hill!)—the world of bobsleigh is quite an interesting one.
To Tourists, With Love
The sport has its roots in tourism and resorts. Tired of a slow winter season, a hotelier in St. Moritz, Switzerland, decided to create some winter activities and amenities to entice English tourists to visit in the off-season.
The hotelier, Caspar Badrutt, attached sleds together with steering mechanisms, and created courses (often just down a snowy road) for his guests to slide down. Multiple people would pile onto the sleds, and the fun activity quickly turned competitive, expanding to more than a hundred different courses in winter resort areas throughout Europe.
The Track is Born
While the first race courses were pretty much straight down a hill, much like a toboggan ride, tracks eventually evolved to include twists and turns. Caspar Badrutt, the hotelier who had started the sport, built the first official bobsled track in 1902, just outside of St. Moritz. Believe it or not, the track still exists today—in fact, it was used for two different Winter Olympics games!
It is one of only two “natural” tracks in the world, letting the weather do the work. The rest of the ice tracks use artificial refrigeration, and are made out of concrete coated with ice.
Official tracks are typically 1,500 meters long with a minimum of 15 curves. They are required to have one straight section as well as a “labyrinth” section, with three curves in a quick succession—no straights in between.
What’s in a Name
“Bobsleigh” is a peculiar word with a straightforward origin. The name was dubbed based on the bobbing motions the race would make to propel the sled. Bobbing on a sled—what could be a more natural name than bobsleigh?
Twos and Fours
Bobsleigh started off with as many as six people per crew, which was eventually reduced to four-person crews. This iteration first appeared in the Olympic games in 1924, and the two-man bobsleigh made its Olympic debut in 1932.
In 2002, women’s bobsleigh was introduced to the Olympics. Currently, women only compete in two-person bobsleigh. All bobsleigh teams, where two- or four-person, consist of a pilot and a brakeman. Four-person crews also include two pushers.
Stats, Facts and Records
It’s not unusual for a bobsleigh to clock in at 93 miles per hour or more—the unofficial record is 125 miles per hour! The curves create some serious g-force—as much as 5 g (for comparison, a Formula One car reaches 5-6 g). Sleds, including their crew and all their gear, can weigh no more than 860 pounds for a two-man crew and 1,389 pounds for a four-man crew.
Bobsleigh athletes must be both strong and fast to be successful in the sport. The crew needs to push the sled up to 50 meters at the beginning of the course—it seems short, but this is often critical to determining the winner. Teams need to have a solid start if they want to place on the podium. Athletes need to focus on power and acceleration.
Pilots need to have an exceptional sense of timing—they are required to make subtle but incredibly important movements to steer the sled along the perfect line. These movements are controlled by two metal rings, which connect to a pulley system that makes up the steering system. Miniature movements guide the slide along its course—pull too hard and the sled will skid, pull to little and you risk losing precious seconds or even crashing. When the winning time is measured by a hundredth of a second, every movement counts.
Bobsled athletes are often recruited from other sports that require similar strengths, like track and field, football, rugby and Olympic weightlifting.
How the Race is Won
It’s relatively simple: the fastest team wins. The time used to determine the winner is based on a combined time over a few heats. For the Olympics and World Championships, this means four heats over two days. For World Cups, it’s two heats in a single day.
Germany, Switzerland, USA, Italy and Canada are typically the countries who dominate the podium– but anything can happen in this sport! Be sure to check it out in the 2014 Winter Olympics– now you’ll see bobsleigh in a whole new light!