Bobsleigh or bobsled is a winter sport in which teams of two or four make timed runs down narrow, twisting, banked, iced tracks in a gravity-powered sled. The timed runs are combined to calculate the final score.
The various types of sleds came several years before the first tracks were built in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where the original bobsleds were adapted upsized luge/skeleton sleds designed by the adventurously wealthy to carry passengers. All three types were adapted from boys delivery sleds and toboggans.
Competition naturally followed, and to protect the working class and rich visitors in the streets and byways of St Moritz, hotel owner Caspar Badrutt, owner of the historic Krup Hotel and the later Palace Hotel, built the first familiarly configured ‘half-pipe’ track circa 1870. It has hosted the sports during two Olympics and is still in use today.
International bobsleigh competitions are governed by the Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing (FIBT). National competitions are often governed by bodies such as the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton.
The History of Bobsleigh
Although sledding on snow or ice had been popular in many northern countries, bobsleighing is a relatively modern sport. It originates from two crestas (skeleton sleds) being attached together with a board and a steering mechanism being attached to the front cresta. The beginnings of the Bobsleigh were humble, starting when English tourists were enticed to stay over the winter in the mineral spa town of St. Moritz, Switzerland by the successful marketing of hotelier Caspar Badrutt.
Badrutt successfully ‘sold’ the idea of ‘winter resorting’ to some of his English regulars as he was annoyed with a four month long season for the rooms, food, alcohol and activities he sold. A year or two later some of his more adventurous English guests began adapting boys’ delivery sleds for recreation and began colliding with pedestrians whilst speeding down the village’s lanes and alleys and roads.
The name comes from participants bobbing back and forth in a ineffective attempt to increase their speed.
This had both short and long term outcomes: in the short term the guests began to scheme about and invent ‘steering means’ for the sleds, which became the luge, bobsleighs (bobsleds), and head-first skeleton. Long term, after a couple of more years of happy pedestrian peril, Badrutt built a special track for their activities—the world’s first natural ice half-pipe track in about 1870.
It is still in operation today and has served as a host track during two Winter Olympics. The track is one of the few natural weather tracks in the world – it does not use artificial refrigeration. The satisfied guests eventually enabled him to build the Palace Hotel, while holding onto the popular Krup Hotel (which catered to different clientele) and brought competition in as winter tourism in alpine locales became very popular.
The first informal races were run on snow-covered roads. The opening of formal competition was in 1884 at St. Moritz. It’s not known how much the original track evolved in the early years as the three sports matured and stabilised. The first club was formed in 1897, and the first purpose-built track solely for bobsleds was opened in 1902 outside of St Moritz. Over the years, bobsleigh tracks evolved from straight runs to twisting and turning tracks. The original wooden sleds were replaced by streamlined fibreglass and metal ones.
The Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing (FIBT) was founded in 1923. Men’s four man bobsleigh appeared in the first ever Winter Olympic Games in 1924, and men’s two man bobsleigh event was added in 1932. Bobsleigh was not included in the 1960 Winter Olympics, but has been in every Winter Olympics since.
Women’s bobsleigh competition began in the US in 1983 with two demonstration races in Lake Placid, New York, one held in February and the 2nd held during the World Cup races in March 1983. Women’s two woman bobsleigh made its Olympic debut at the2002 Winter Olympic Games. Bobsleigh is also contested at American, European, and World Cup championships.
Switzerland and Germany have been the most successful bobsleighing nations measured by overall success in European, World, World Cup, and Olympic championships. The Swiss have won more medals than any other nation, and since the 1990s Germans have been dominant in international competition. Italy, Austria, USA and Canada also have strong bobsleigh traditions.
Bobsleighs can attain speeds of 150 km/h (93 mph). The record however is 201 km/h (125 mph). A record the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation repeatedly rejected as valid due to lack of documentation that still need to be presented.
Runs begin from a standing start, with the crew pushing the sled for up to 50 meters before boarding. The runners of the sled follow grooves in the ice for this distance, so steering is unnecessary until after the sleigh exits the starting area. Races can be lost in the initial push but are rarely won there. Over the rest of the course, the sleigh’s speed depends on its weight, aerodynamics, runners, the condition of the ice, and the skill of the driver.
Race times are recorded in hundredths of seconds, so even seemingly minor errors can have a measurable impact on the final race standings. Because any decrease in speed affects the sleigh for the remainder of the course, errors made high on the track will have a greater effect than those made closer to the finish.
Each run down the course in competition is referred to as a heat. The men’s and women’s standings for normal races are calculated over the aggregate of two runs or heats. At the Olympic Winter Games and World Championships, all competitions (for both men and women) consist of four heats.