Bobsleigh, luge and skeleton originated in late 19th century St. Moritz, Switzerland where excitable English tourists came into contact with an entrepreneurial hotel owner. The tourists were enthusiastic about attempting variations on traditional snow sledding by modifying delivery boys’ sleds by attaching two sleds together and adding a steering mechanism, while the tourists’ steering techniques for the sleds, evolved into the sports of luge, bobsleigh and skeleton. Eventually the first track (the Cresta Run) was built descending from St. Moritz to the small town of Celerina to prevent tourists from colliding with passers-by while tobogganing. Modern sleighs are built from light metals and steel runners according to length and weight specifications.
Bobsleigh has been contested at the Winter Olympics since the first Winter Games in 1924, and luge, was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1964, while skeleton, although part of the 1928 and 1948 Games, was only fully included in the competition in 2002. Bobsleigh and luge have three events each, while skeleton has two. All three sports use the same tracks, 16 of which exist around the world, constructed, with the exception of that in St. Moritz, of reinforced concrete and paneled with ammonia refrigeration in order for the track to cool before runs.
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A luge, which in Swiss French means “small coasting sled,” is a small toboggan made for one or two people facing up, feet-first. Athletes ride in a flat position on the sled keeping their heads as low as possible to minimize air resistance. They steer primarily with their feet by applying pressure to the runners. A combination of the coordination of the athlete’s position on the sled and applying the right pressure with the shoulders and feet is necessary. The speeds reach on average around 75-100 mph. It is clear that Luge is not a sport without risk — unfortunately, this became evident recently in the Vancouver Winter Olympics accident where the 21-year-old Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili’s luge flipped off track during a practice run and he was found dead after having crashed into a steel pole.
Bobsleigh is a team sport of two or four athletes racing down a track in a gravity powered sleigh. Each run down the slope is called a “heat” and each competition consists of four heats. Mistakes made early in the heat will have a greater effect than ones made closer to the end. The races begin with athletes standing and pushing the sled for 160 feet before getting on the sleigh. In this part of the course the track has grooves, while throughout the rest of the course the steering and speed depend on the weight of the sleigh, its aerodynamics, the ice and the drivers, as well as the initial force put in.
In skeleton, finally, individual athletes race down the track on small toboggans, which have no steering or break mechanisms, face down. It is required that sled frames be made of steel and that the combined weight of athlete and sleigh is above a set minimum. The base plate may be made of plastics or carbon fiber while handles and bumpers on the sides of the sled help secure the athlete in place during runs. Skeleton athletes, who experience a force of up to 5 g, use equipment that includes a speedsuit, helmet and spiked shoes. Interestingly, skeleton is widely available to amateurs, which justifies its rising popularity.
It will be exciting to see the outcomes of all three sports in this year’s Winter Olympics, even with the recent accident in mind. Luge, bob and skeleton are relatively unusual, but incredibly interesting sports.