Bobsleigh is raced on ice with athletes in fibreglass and steel vehicles fueled by muscle and gravity, reaching speeds in excess of 150km/h on ice-covered specially engineered concrete tracks. From a standing start, the crew accelerates their sled from the "start block" to over 40km/h in the first 50m timing zone. They cover this distance in under six seconds, while loading the crew into the sled as efficiently as possible. Then they hurtle down the course, aiming for an optimal path through the various turns. The timing of the race is accurate to 1/100th of a second.
By 1897 Europe's wealthy raced sleds at St. Moritz, Switzerland. In Canada, the first bobsleigh club began in 1911. Early sleighs had two wooden toboggans bolted together, and were ridden headfirst. Four-man bobsleighs debuted in 1924 at the inaugural Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France. Once the sport turned fiercely competitive, nations trained athletes for fast starts and introduced soccer players, sprinters and gymnasts to the sport. Canadian athletes could finally train at home in 1986, when the track built for the 1988 Olympic Games opened in Calgary. At the 2002 Olympics, women's bobsleigh was added to the program as an official medal sport.
Bobsledding is done in 2 man and four man crews. A four-man sled is easier for a driver to control, but its weight makes it less responsive than a two-man sled. Conversely, the odds of skidding, hitting walls or veering off line increases in two-man sleds, but the lighter combination of crew and sled make it easier to drive out of such mistakes.
Competitive sliding was popular in the alpine countries of Europe, but the sport was a popular pastime with the Mohawks of Kahnawake in Quebec, who also gave us the word 'toboggan." The first official luge competition occurred in 1883, on a 4-km road between Davos and Klosters. The sport made its Olympic debut in 1964, and Canada entered its first official luge team at the 1968 Olympics. The luge course is between 1000m and 1500m long, with a gradient of between 8 and 15 per cent. With specially-built refrigerated tracks and aerodynamic sleds, today's lugers hurtle down the track at up to 140km/h.
A strong start is vital to a winning luge run, with the athlete rocking back and forth and then hurtling forward with the start handles. Sliders, positioned feet first in an aerodynamic shape with arms and legs outstretched, subtly move their shoulders, legs and hands to steer the sled through the curves. At the end of track, as they sit up and pull up the sled runners to skid to a stop. In doubles, the procedure is much the same but the taller athlete (on top) shares the steering responsibilities with his partner underneath, keeping an aerodynamic line down the track.
Three events are on the Olympic program: women's single luge, men's single luge, and double luge, which has been a mixed event since the 1992 Games in Albertville, although no mixed team has ever competed at the Games.
While skeleton will be new to most us, an earlier version of the event actually made Olympic appearances in 1928 and 1948. In fact, it's actually the oldest sliding event, a true forerunner of the better-known bobsleigh and luge. The original Cresta Run was a modified toboggan run with curves and tight corners added to liven things up. It stretched about one kilometre and with a vertical drop of about 150 metres
Interest surged again when the first multi-use, refrigerated bobsleigh tracks were built in the late 1960s and 1970s, and the traditional skeleton sled was modernized for the new tracks. The sport came to North America in the 1980s after bobsleigh runs were built for Olympic competitions in Lake Placid, New York and Calgary.
Skeleton competitions are held on the same track as bobsleigh and luge, using the same start position as bobsleigh. From a standing start, the athlete will power their sled from the "start block", accelerating to over 40km/h, then loading onto the sled head first, stomach down. Competitors use subtle shoulder, head or body movements to steer their sleds. Races are times to 1/100th of a second.
Over the 1950s, wooden toboggans gave way to streamlined steel and fibreglass designs.
A rule limiting the total weight of the crew and sled, instituted in the early 1950s, removed the advantage held by heavier teams. Lighter crews were now allowed to attach weight bars to their sleds to level the playing field.
There are only 14 bobsleigh tracks in the world approved by the Federation Internationale de Bobsledding et de Toboganning (FIBT), bobsleigh's international governing organization. Courses are standardized and must meet strict FIBT criteria for elements like width, length, the number and types of turns, and ice conditions. In Canada, the only two tracks are at Canada Olympic Park, on the western outskirts of Calgary, with the newest facility built for the 2010 Winter Olympics at Whistler, north of Vancouver.