One of the scariest winter Olympic sports.
The sport of skeleton can be traced to 1882, when English soldiers constructed a toboggan track between the towns of Davos and Klosters. While toboggan tracks were not uncommon at the time, the added challenge of curves and bends in the Swiss track distinguished it from those of Canada and the United States.
In skeleton, there are separate racing disciplines for men and women. In World Cup competitions two heats are held over one day. At the FIBT World Championships (held annually except in the Olympic year), four heats are held over two days. The skeleton competition at the 2010 Olympic Winter games in Vancouver, Canada skeleton events will be four-heat competitions for the first time.
The athlete with the lowest combined time in all heats is the winner. There are also America Cup and Europe Cup race series, the development level circuits for the newer sliders. These races allow the athletes to gain experience and earn the qualifications needed to compete at the World Cup and World Championships levels. A new FIBT circuit, The Intercontinental Cup, is starting with the 2007-2008 season. In addition to the senior World Championships, athletes under the age of 23 can compete in the Junior World Championships.
The Start Time
The ‘Start time’ is the time it takes the sled to travel the first 50 metres down the track. This is the most critical part of the race. Without a competitive start, at least within a tenth of a second of the fastest start time, a medal finish is next to impossible.
Top skeleton sliders are looking for maximum power and acceleration as they push their sled from a standing start, with the first 50-metres typically covered in about five seconds while reaching speeds of over 40 km/h.
Once the athlete has loaded at the start, they must then steer the sled through twisting, high-speed turns and straight-aways where top speeds can reach over 135 km/h. Steering is done by shoulder and leg “manipulations” of the sled, which in turn cause the runner contact to change the sled direction. Steer too hard and the sled will skid, losing valuable time. Steer too little and the sled is at the mercy of the track, causing slow times at best, and a crash at worst.
Skeleton sliders often talk of the “feel” they need to have to race well and the sense they develop of when to let the sled run and when to steer. Just as downhill skiers try different lines to find the quickest way down a slope, so too do skeleton drivers study every twist and turn on a track to figure out the fastest way to the finish.
Since the ice becomes rougher as the competition progresses, it is an advantage to be among the first to go down the track. To determine which sliders get the best start positions, a seeding system is in place to reward the top sliders based on their previous results. Starting in 2007-2008 the has started a World Ranking system. The rankings will be used to determine start order for all competitions and they also determine nation quotas, and the starting order for the Olympic Winter Games and the World Championships.
At the first World Cup competition of each season, the World Ranking from the previous season is applied. A draw is conducted for the top 10 ranked athletes. The rest of the field starts based on the World Ranking order.
The skeleton sled is a low profile, but heavy sled, with a fiberglass “pod” which provides the aerodynamics to the lower part, mounted onto a steel chassis/frame. The sled “runs” on two highly polished steel runners. The runners are mounted such that the “bow” can be controlled, which assists in the steering of the sled. There are no brakes on a skeleton sled, so the athlete and sled will stop by decelerating in the braking stretch and sometimes they will have either “fresh snow” or foam pads in the track to assist with the braking.
The temperature of the steel runners is taken electronically immediately prior to each race heat. Heating of the runners is illegal. At the finish line, the sled and athlete are weighed to ensure that they are below the maximum weight.
To place all competitors on an equal footing, sleds are standardized according to specifications set by the Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Toboganning (FIBT).
Skeleton races historically took place on natural-ice tracks. Today however, most competition takes place on tracks with an artificial ice surface. A notable exception is the natural-ice track in St. Moritz which is a regular stop on the World Cup circuit. Most tracks are about 1500 metres long and all have unique characteristics and varying degrees of difficulty. All courses drop a minimum specified vertical distance and feature numerous banked curves from top to bottom.
Skeleton athletes wear alpine racing type helmets and skin-tight racing uniforms made from a stretch material. Racing shoes are similar to track spikes, for traction on the ice. Athletes will wear either goggles or face shields, while some riders wear elbow and shoulder padding over their racing suits.