Bobsledding

I Introduction

Bobsledding, winter sport in which teams of two or four steer a sled down an ice-covered track, reaching speeds of more than 135 km/h (84 mph). The fastest sled wins, often by mere hundredths of a second. The sport’s name comes from its early days, when sledders bobbed their bodies back and forth on straightaways to help the sled along. Bobbing was never proved to work and was soon discontinued, but it remained a part of the sport’s name.

II Strategy and Technique

The most critical part of a bobsled run is its start. Teams focus on explosive starts because momentum at that point strongly affects the sled’s speed throughout the course. Saving one-tenth of a second during the start often translates to saving one-third of a second on the run as a whole.

To set the bobsled in motion, team members sprint while pushing the sled forward. They run for about 50 m (164 ft) and then leap into the sled just before the first turn, assuming streamlined positions for the remainder of the run. The driver occupies the front position and steers the sled. The brakeman, in the rear position, operates the brake. On a four-man bobsled the two middle sledders contribute mostly during the start, although they also shift their weight during turns.

On the course, drivers try to steer through the turns smoothly and to prevent the sled from skidding into the walls. The greatest challenge is to maintain a tight line on the banked curves, not allowing the sled to drift high up the turn. After the finish, the brakeman pulls up on the brake to stop the sled.

The basic techniques used in two-man and four-man bobsledding are the same, but because four-man sleds have two extra sledders, they are faster. They gain power from the extra push provided by the middle sledders at the start, the sledders’ additional weight, and the increased weight of a larger sled. The increased speed and weight make four-man sleds harder to steer than two-man sleds.

Bobsled competitions involve training runs and two or four heats, with the lowest combined time winning. Racers often use the training runs to experiment with different strategies.

III Course and Rules

Bobsled runs look like tunnels without roofs, and they twist and wind down hillsides or artificial slopes. Most have a base of concrete or stone, which is covered with snow and iced over. Courses measure from 1200 to 1600 m (0.75 to 1 mi) in length. Over that distance most courses drop 110 to 125 m (360 to 410 ft) in elevation. They feature straightaways that are barely wider than the sleds and curves that range from slight deviations to 360° turns that are banked 6 m (20 ft) high. In these banked curves, racers can experience the pressure of four times the force of gravity.

Bobsledding’s international governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing (FIBT), sets guidelines for equipment, course design, and competition. These guidelines reduce the sport’s risk, but the weight of sleds and their fast speeds make bobsledding hazardous, and some bobsledders have lost their lives during competition. The accidents that occur mostly involve overturned sleds.

Electronic timers at the start and finish lines record the times of the sleds, which often finish only a few hundredths of a second apart. At the end of each run, officials select the top finishers and several other teams for weight and specification checks to ensure that all competitors abide by the rules. Officials also inspect sled runners to check that they are not illegally warmed or coated with silicone for better glide.

IV Equipment

To provide traction during the start, bobsledders wear spiked shoes that grip the ice. These spikes may not exceed 4 mm (.16 in). Bobsledders also wear skintight uniforms and gloves that make them more aerodynamic. All competitors must wear helmets. Drivers must wear goggles.

Bobsleds are made of aluminum and steel, although synthetic materials such as kevlar and carbon are becoming increasingly popular. All sleds must fit international specifications. The maximum length for two-man sleds, sometimes called boblets, is 2.7 m (8 ft 10 in). Four-man sleds can be 3.8 m (12 ft 6 in) long. Maximum weights, including crew, are 390 kg (860 lb) for two-man sleds and 630 kg (1389 lb) for four-man sleds.

The sled slides on four runners, two on the front axle and two on the rear. The front axle is connected to a steering mechanism of pulleys and ropes that the driver handles. The back axle is bolted to the sled and does not move. The sled also has a brake, a saw-toothed bar that comes down between the back runners. An aerodynamic hood, or cowl, covers the front of the sled. The back is open, which allows the brakeman to jump in easily at the start (the other sledders jump over the side). Handles extend from the back, where the brakeman pushes at the start. The other sledders use handles along the sides; these handles retract once the sledders jump into the sled.

V International Competition

All international events are governed by the FIBT, which has a membership of about 50 nations. The major competitions are the Winter Olympics, the world championships, and the contests on the annual World Cup circuit. All of these events include two-man and four-man races. Countries may enter two sleds in World Cup competition and three sleds in Olympic and world championship competition. The starting order is decided by a ranking based on previous races and the better teams go first. This gives the top teams an advantage because as the competition progresses the sled runners tear up the course, producing slower times. At the Olympics and the world championships, events consist of four runs made by each team. World Cup events involve only two runs per team.

VI History

The first bobsled race took place in the late 1800s in Europe. Most of the early competitors were wealthy men, who gathered to race and also to have parties. Over time, however, competitive bobsledding developed, and the first bobsled club was founded in 1897 in Saint Moritz, Switzerland. The first organized bobsled race was held the next year in Saint Moritz. The FIBT was founded in 1923, and a year later four-man bobsled teams competed in the first Winter Olympics, held in Chamonix, France. In 1927 the first world championships were held in Saint Moritz. The two-man competition was added to the world championships in 1931 and to the Olympics in 1932. In Olympic years, Olympic winners are also considered world champions.

American and British bobsledders were strong in the 1920s and 1930s. American sledder Billy Fiske was particularly prominent. He drove sleds that won gold medals at the Olympics in 1928 and 1932. Switzerland’s Fritz Feierabend was one of bobsledding’s most important racers and innovators. In 1931 he introduced a new sled with tempered steel runners, and his sled designs dominated the sport for the next 20 years. Feierabend himself was a outstanding sledder, winning several world championships in two-man and four-man bobsledding in the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1952 the sport changed dramatically when the FIBT imposed weight limits on sleds. Before weight limits, many competitors were on teams because their heavy body weight enabled the sleds to carry more speed. With the imposition of weight limits, they were replaced by conditioned athletes who trained year-round to master explosive starts. Since the 1950s the sport has been dominated by teams from mountainous European nations. Italy’s Eugenio Monti was the premier bobsledder from the late 1950s through the late 1960s. Outstanding sledders of the 1970s included Switzerland’s Erich Schärer and Germany’s Bernhard Germeshausen. German bobsledder Wolfgang Hoppe is the most decorated bobsledder ever, with more than 30 Olympic and world championship medals. Throughout the years sleds have continued to improve, and today’s most successful designs are built by aircraft manufacturers and tested in wind tunnels for aerodynamics.

Beginning in the late 1980s, bobsledding started to expand worldwide, as teams from Caribbean and Asian nations took up the sport. At the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, the Jamaican bobsledding team became crowd favorites as one of the sport’s first Olympic competitors from a snowless country. Although bobsledding’s language–for instance, the identification of sleds as two-man or four-manstill reflects its all-male origins, all-women teams and teams that mix men and women are beginning to compete at the international level. Women's bobsledding made its debut as an Olympic medal sport at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Contributed By:

Enrico Sassi, B.A., M.F.A.

Lecturer and Teacher, English Composition and Technical Writing, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

How to cite this article:

"Bobsledding," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2003

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