An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.
The sliding sports are a sort of blue-collar special at the Olympics. Because fans are allowed to spread out along the entire course, thousands of tickets are usually available, and bobsled, skeleton, and luge are not usually among the Games’ biggest draws. That makes them rather affordable, in Olympic-ticket terms. And once you’re there, the thrill is inescapable.
Fans can stand right along most parts of the track—even on bridges over the top of it, in some places. Few Olympic sports allow you to get close enough to actually feel the jet wash of passing competitors. It’s truly spectacular, and a thrill even for spectators with only a casual interest in who wins.
Field of Play
Bobsled, luge, and skeleton athletes all compete on the same field of play: frozen, U-shaped tracks of steep-banked ice that twist their way down mountainsides. The only difference for the three sports in terms of the track is that they start at different points on the mountain—bobsledders and singles lugers typically start higher than skeleton riders and doubles lugers. Women also start lower on the course than men.
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Most modern ice tracks are built of concrete, which is covered by a thin layer of refrigerated ice and meticulously manicured, although a handful of old-style “natural” courses made from pouring freezing water on snow still exist in Europe—one of which is still used for World Cup competitions, the highest level of the sport.
Curves on the courses are very steeply banked—near vertical, in the case of horseshoe turns. The curves make each track unique. Although each sliding track shares common traits (on average, they are between 1,000 and 1,500 meters [3,280 and 4,921 feet] long and about 1.5 meters [5 feet] wide, with slope grades ranging from 8 to 15 percent), there is no standard sliding track. Each course must have a hairpin turn, a left turn, a right turn, and a labyrinth, but, like the downhill course in skiing, each has its own unique layout and characteristics, often reflective of the terrain onto which it’s built. This is part of the tradition and allure of the sport, and it keeps things interesting for competitors and spectators alike.
North America’s four existing ice tracks serve as good examples of how different courses can be: The current Lake Placid track, one of the most “technical,” or curvy on the World Cup circuit, has 20 curves for men and 17 for women; Calgary’s track offers only 14 curves for men and 10 for women; the track at Park City, Utah, has 14 curves for men and 12 for women. These courses range from 1,455 meters (4,773 feet) in length for men’s competition at Lake Placid to only 1,086 meters (3,563 feet) for women at Calgary.
The fourth track, completed in 2008 on the slopes of Blackcomb Mountain for the 2010 Vancouver Games, looks to be one of the fastest courses in the world, with 16 curves over a 1,450-meter men’s course that, even in its infancy, has proven steep enough to produce some truly spine-tingling moments. For more on the Whistler track, see page 77.
Generally, the higher and colder the location of the track, the faster the ice will be. Warmer ice allows the razor-sharp runners to sink in farther, creating greater friction. And in a sport so dependent on aerodynamics, thinner air at higher elevations creates less drag on sleds.
Format, Rules, and Strategy
Each bobsled run begins with racers standing outside the sled, pushing hard and digging in with spiked cleats for up to 50 meters as the sled runners slide in grooves on a level ice surface before all team members pile in and tuck down for the downhill run.
At the Olympics, bobsledders take four runs. Starts are crucial: A fraction of a second edge at the top of the course can turn into several seconds by the time the team reaches the bottom. To gain maximum advantage, many modern bobsled drivers have begun recruiting sled “pushers” from the ranks of elite track-and-field athletes. Race times are recorded in hundredths of seconds, and the difference between first and second—or, at the Olympics, between a medal and no medal—is often minuscule.
In luge, as in bobsled, the start is key. Luge sliders don’t run and jump into their sleds. They start seated atop it, hands on two bars sticking out of a start gate at hip level. They then rock back and forth and use their arms to launch themselves down the track, pushing with their spiked gloves for additional speed.
All that’s left from that point on is steering—and chilling out. The key to sliding extremely fast, ironically, is to relax, most luge drivers say. That’s tough to do when you’re hurtling at 144 kilometers per hour (90 mph) down a ribbon of ice.
Lugers can undergo forces five times that of gravity and, because of the way their heads are situated, can’t see directly where they’re going. Sound like fun? It’s even more complicated when done with a partner. Doubles luge teams sit tightly bunched, with the heavier slider or “rear driver” on the top, or rear, of the sled and the lighter, front “driver” nestled between his legs.
Singles lugers get four runs over two days; doubles lugers get two runs on one day. It’s a dangerous sport: The sleds are so sensitive that even slight head movements can make a sled and rider, who is attached only by gravity and a firm hand grip, veer off the course. Luge times are kept in milliseconds (thousandths of a second).
In skeleton, starts are made with the slider standing, crouched forward, hands on the sides of the low-slung sled as he or she sprints about 50 meters in spiked cleats before leaping onto the sled face first. In the descent position, sliders keep their hands along their sides, their chins barely off the ice. They steer by shifting their body weight.
Skeleton riders take two runs on the same day, and their times are tracked in hundredths of a second.
In all three sliding sports, the lowest cumulative time wins. The fastest sleds are those that negotiate curves in the closest semblance to a straight line. Sleds bumping and banging into the icy sidewalls lose tremendous amounts of speed. Drivers who run “clean” through the course, avoiding bumps and entering and exiting turns gracefully and efficiently, will post the fastest times.
Training and Equipment
The sliding sports, perhaps more than any other, meld the dual talents of athleticism and technological prowess. Because heavier sleds naturally slide faster, bobsled, skeleton, and luge, the old joke went, were the only sports one could train for by heavy lifting—of multiple beers. No longer. Weight restrictions placed on sleds and riders ended all that, making taut bodies the new norm for athletes engaged in the sport.
Sliding athletes are generally incredibly fit: wiry and strong from top to bottom, with lightning-quick reflexes and the steely nerve it takes to fling your body down a ribbon of ice at more than
80 mph. They’re heavily into weight training, sprints, hopping over hurdles, and other strength and agility exercises. Lugers need to have particularly strong necks, upper bodies, and lower legs, as those parts are used to control the course of the sled.
Although the sliding vehicles vary greatly, the other gear has some similarities. All sliding athletes wear form-fitting synthetic speed suits to cut down on wind drag. All wear low-top shoes with spikes on the bottom to gain purchase in the starting area. And all wear impact helmets with face shields to prevent injury. Gloves vary between the pursuits. A luger’s gloves stand out because of the spikes along the fingertips, used to continue pushing off the ice after leaving the start gate.
Sleds have evolved from crude toys, really, to precision instruments, with closely protected secrets contained in their runners, floorboards, seats, and cowlings. Yet even the fastest sled in the world will finish last if it’s not pushed and driven by athletes every bit as sculpted and honed as the equipment.
Inside the Bobsled
Bobsleds—sleek, aerodynamic, rocket-shaped sleds made of metal and fiberglass that reach speeds in excess of 128 kilometers per hour (80 mph)—have rope-operated steering mechanisms and are the most easily steered of the three sleds. Attaining top speed is dependent on weight, aerodynamics, ice temperature, and the sharpness and composition of the steel runners, in addition to the skill of the driver, who has the task of negotiating fully vertical banked turns in a precise way to avoid crashes. After the start, nondriving crew members are essentially ballast, keeping their heads down and all limbs out of the way.
Combined athlete/sled weight limits have been imposed since 1952. Today, the maximum is 630 kilograms or 1,389 pounds for a four-man sled, 390 kilograms or 859 pounds for a two-man sled, and 340 kilograms or 750 pounds for a two-woman sled. This injects a bit of math wizardry into the sport, as drivers must carefully consider the strength-to-weight ratio of each team member to reach optimum performance, particularly in the crucial race starts.
Bobsleds have brakes, which can be applied only in the finishing straight, where traveling uphill causes the sled to slow somewhat on its own.
Luge’s Inner Workings
Luge drivers, who slide feet first on their backs, on narrow sleds, achieve even higher speeds than their bobsledding counterparts—exceeding 137 kilometers per hour (85 mph), and their equipment couldn’t be more different. Luge sleds are small and flexible, with runners angled inwards. Drivers lie on their backs and steer by applying pressure to the runners with their calves and to the sled surface with their shoulders, not with a steering wheel.
Because weight is a key to speed, weight limits are strict. A singles sled must weigh between 21 and 25 kilograms, or 46 and 55 pounds; a doubles sled must be between 25 and 30 kilograms, or 55 and 66 pounds. There is no weight limit per se for the athletes, but the total weight of the sled and its driver(s) is tightly controlled; lighter athletes often add supplemental weights to their bodies—under a complicated, prescribed formula—to hit the maximum allowances. Doubles lugers, for example, are allowed up to 180 kilograms, or 396 pounds, of weight between them. And yes, officials do check: Sleds and sliders are weighed in after each run.
Luge sleds have no brakes; they’re stopped by pulling up on the front of the sled, digging in the rear runners, and simultaneously braking with the feet in the finish area, where the sled slides uphill in a deceleration lane.
Skeleton Facts of Life
Skeleton sleds are heavier, rectangular sleds, 79 to 119 centimeters (31 to 47 inches) long and 46 centimeters (18 inches) wide, with a fiberglass top sheet over steel runners placed 33 to 38 centimeters (13 to 15 inches) apart. The combined weight of the sled and sledder is capped at 115 kilograms (253 pounds) for men (42 kilograms for the sled alone) and 92 kilograms (203 pounds) for women (35 kilograms for the sled alone).
Skeleton sleds also have no brakes; racers slow them by sitting up and putting their feet down on the ground over the course of the finish area, which runs back uphill toward the starting position to allow slowing by gravity.