Skeleton at the Winter Olympics
Skeleton is by most accounts the most reckless of all the Winter Olympic sports. Competitors race head first down an ice-covered track lying with their stomachs against a flat sled. Thanks to the streamlined sleds and body positions the competitors frequently reach speeds of 75 mph and experience up to 5Gs of gravitational force.
The sport started in 19th century Switzerland — as did most of the sledding sports. In the case of skeleton, the actual inspiration was a toboggan course that was built by English soldiers between their posts at Davos and Klosters. This course was different from traditional toboggan courses because of its steep angles and tight turns. Years later, a flat sled that resembled a human skeleton was designed for this type of course — which is how the sport got its name.
Skeleton remained a primarily Swiss sport until the early 20th century when it began spreading across Europe. Although Skeleton was included in the 1928 and 1948 Olympics, it was not given permanent status as an Olympic sport until 2002.
The skeleton racers use the same track as both bobsleigh racers and lugers. Skeleton racers begin by running with their sleds down the track for 30 to 40 feet and then throwing themselves onto the sleds as they take off down the track. Competitors lie on the sled with their arms tight against their sleds.
The flat skeleton sled has no form of steering or braking. To control the sled, the racers use subtle weight shifts in their heads and bodies. To slow down, they drag their feet on the ice. As the competition continues the track has a tendency to get rutted and choppy; consequently, the racers who come later in the lineup tend to pull slightly slower times.
Not every country can compete in the Olympic skeleton competition. Countries must participate in the World Cup events first. The men’s Olympic event includes only the racers from the top 12 World Cup countries, while racers from the top 8 countries participate in the women’s competition.