Bobsledding

Born of toboganning, a bobsled is a kind of covered toboggan with steel runners, a rope steering system, and a brake. Today's aerodynamic sleds bear little resemblance to the original bobsleds, which were basically toboggans with steering mechanisms. Competition began in the 1870s in Switzerland, where it was noted that the riders "bobbed" back and forth to aid speed and steering. Originally on natural ice slopes, toboganning today is done on specially constructed tracks that resemble modern amusement park rides more than the glaciers the sport originated on.

Competition

The bulk of the sport involves competition at a national and international level. Two-person teams (mens and womens classes) and four-person teams (men only) compete on an ice-covered course in an aerodynamic sled that will often achieve speeds of 90 mph. The two- or four-person crews push the sled at the start and then jump in for the ride. The person in front steers the sled and is called the driver. The person at the rear is called the brakeman. On a four-man toboggan, the middle two are called side-push men. Once the sled is underway, gravity takes over. No other propulsion is allowed.

Now on course, the driver uses ropes to steer the runners. Crew members may shift weight to assist in steering, but they can't see the course ahead. Thus the crew has to train for specific courses, knowing in advance when to shift and in which direction. Speeds can reach 90 miles per hour, and runs by a well trained team take less than a minute. The run ends with heavy braking in a run-out area, during which the crew can experience up to 5 Gs.

The challenge for the driver is mostly in the curves -- finding the fastest line down the track. Like a racecar, running high in a curve allows the sled to carry more speed, but it increases the distance the sled travels.

In Olympic competition, the course is one mile long, and two runs are made per team. The combined time of the two runs determines the order of finish. A two-man sled can weigh no more than 858 pounds, and a four-man sled is limited to 1,386 pounds. Lighter teams may add weights to the sled. The runners on the sled cannot be heated or treated in any manner.

History

early bobsled race, public domain photoSwiss bobsled race circa 1900
Bobsleighs were originally constructed of wood -- nothing more than glorified toboggans -- as mentioned above. The sport took off when a bobsledding club was formed in Switzerland in 1896, and soon competitors were constructing sleds of steel to gain speed and steering performance.

The Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing (FIBT) was founded in 1923. One year later, the sport was introduced at the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France. Events were expanded at the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

From the 1930s to the late 1950s, the United States more or less dominated the sport. Since the 1950s, Germany and Switzerland have committed more training and resources, and have held the lead for the last 50 years. Today countries such as Jamaica and Morocco, with nary a glacier in sight, compete successfully in international competitions.

Participating in this Sport

Competing at the top level is generally reserved for gifted athletes and those resourceful or wealthy enough to finance their own training. The bulk of top-level bobsledding in the USA is practiced in Lake Placid, NY and Park City, UT, and is managed by the USBSF (US Bobsled & Skeleton Foundation). The USBSF also runs an annual "recruitment tour," where you can show up, be tested in a few different athletic exercises, and...who knows? You could be on the Olympic Bobsled Team someday. The recruitment tour is sponsored by Verizon. (we don't do commercials, but since they're supporting it, we might as well give 'em a plug).

In addition, the USBSF runs a youth program in Lake Placid; kids 12-18 train and compete in 3/4 sized sleds on a 1/2 mile course.

1950s era bobsled race, public domain photo
typical bobsled competition at Lake Placid, 1950s
If you simply wish to ride a bobsled for the heck of it, both US Olympic facilities offer a toned-down ride along program. The "toned-down" part means that you only hit top speeds of 70 mph, versus the competition levels at 90 mph. It is not for the faint of heart, nor the faint of wallet...the 2005 rate in Park City is $200. per sled seat. A much less pricey experience is available at the Lake Placid facility, but with an admittedly lower adrenaline surge. A form of ride is available both summer and winter.

The Home-Grown Variety

bobsledding as a public sport, public domain photoAt one time people enjoyed bobsledding as a casual pasttime much as tubing or open rink ice skating is enjoyed today.
Up until the mid 1960s, "toy" bobsleds were found in many American barns and garages. Some were homemade constructions, others were manufactured. These commercially available wood/metal/plastic creations were sold in department stores, hardware stores, sporting goods shops, etc., right alongside the Flexible Flyer. They tended to be a bit awkward, virtually impossible to steer, and rather ungainly to push back uphill. In retrospect, these things were incredibly dangerous, but it was a heck of a lot of fun! If you happen to spot one of these at a garage sale, buy it -- you won't likely see another.

There are a number of "build your own" plans floating around. Also, certain smaller horse-drawn sleighs are referred to as "bobsleighs," but are unrelated to today's sport.

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