clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What you need to know about Olympic luge, bobsled and skeleton at the Sochi Games

New, comments

Three Olympic sports involve going 90 miles an hour in a sled through a curvy ice tunnel. Is America going to win any medals? How about JAMAICA, FEEL THE RHYTHM, FEEL THE RHYME?

Paul Gilham

SB Nation 2014 Olympics Preview

Every two years, NBC asks us to pay attention to sports we haven't paid attention to in four years and expects us to watch because some of the people are American and/or have cool stories. Because we're jingoists and/or suckers, we oblige. However, we know nothing about these sports. Even the basic things.

So we bring you "Olympics, How Do They Work?" to explain/tell you everything about these wintry things.

Today, let's learn about: SKELETON, LUGE AND BOBSLED.

So, uh, what are skeleton, luge and bobsled?

If there were a biological family tree of Winter Olympics sports, you could pretty easily break it down into a few categories. Games, like hockey and curling. Or competitions based around doing tricks like figure skating and snowboarding. But by far the largest winter sport category is: "Hey, which of us is fastest at XXX way of getting down a mountain?"

You can further break this category into a large subcategory: "Which of us is fastest at getting down the mountain on a sled," also known as "sliding." This subcategory is luge, skeleton and bobsled. All three events use the same course, an ice-covered run that drops the sleds several hundred feet with huge banking turns that the sleds must navigate at progressively higher speeds. However, the types of sleds used in each are different, apparently a large enough difference to classify the three categories as different disciplines.

Luge is the only one of the three where the racer starts on the sled. The racer, lying feet-first, yanks themselves forward off a pair of rods at the start of the track.

Skeleton features a similar sled to luge, but the racer sprints for about 40 meters before jumping head-first onto the sled.

Unlike the luge/skeleton sleds, which fit entirely under the racer, bobsleds are basically sliding snowcars. After a sprinting start, competitors hop into the sled. While there is a two-man luge, bobsled is the only one of the three that is exclusively a team sport, with two- and four-man teams. Also, while lugers and skeleton people control their sled just by angling their bodies in different ways, the bobsled has a steering mechanism, controlled by the driver.

How does this work?

The format for the competition is kinda unique at the Olympics: There aren't really heats or semifinals or anything -- all four runs lugers, bobsledders, and skeleton ... ers take over the span of two days count. The winner is based on cumulative time, and the difference between first and second is almost always less than a second, despite taking four runs.

The full list of medals up for grabs:

Luge: Men's singles and doubles, women's singles, and for the first time, "team relay," an event where one sled from each event participates in one run. When one sledder clears the course, the next starts. This seems like a bad idea.

BTW, yes, the two-man luge is just a dude lying down on top of another dude:

Bobsled: Two-man, four-man, and two-woman.

Skeleton: Men's singles and women's singles.

Jamaica we have a bobsled team

Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, etc.:

Yes, Jamaica we have a bobsled team. Everybody likes this because a) warm weather countries at the Winter Olympics b) Jamaica is the best country in so many regards c) "COOL RUNNINGS"

For starters, watch this nice mini-documentary about the actual 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, whose story was in" Cool Runnings":

Secondly, yes, let's talk about the Jamaican bobsled team. They qualified for the Games, but didn't necessarily have enough money to make it. Until people on Reddit donated all the money to them.

There's no four-man team, like there was in "Cool Runnings," just two. The driver is Winston Watts, who is a whopping 46 years old and competing in his fourth Olympics: first in Lillehammer in 1994 when the team impressed by finishing 14th -- ahead of the US, Sweden, Russia and other teams you'd expect to do well. He didn't do as well in 1998 and 2002. But after failing to qualify in 2006 and retiring, he's back and better than ever. Although he isn't a very good tweeter:

His brakeman is Marvin Dixon. Sadly, the four-man team, featuring superstar Hannukah Wallace, did not qualify. Dixon and Watts lost their luggage, but they're better now.

If you're looking for a villain, turn to Lascelles Brown, a Jamaican-born bobsledder who competed for Jamaica until 2004 before switching his citizenship to Canada to match that of his wife. He won silver in Turin and bronze in Vancouver, while the Jamaican team itself has yet to find the podium or anything close to it. I don't know how anybody could turn their back on the Jamaican bobsled team, but apparently it's possible.

Its too late for us to root for the 2014 edition of the Jamaican bobsled team: Bruno Banani, the one-man delegation from Tonga:

Tonga, of course, is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, an archipelago with 100,000 residents. Banani's story is a long one, but a spectacular one. Essentially, the princess of Tonga wanted to send a Tongan to the Olympics, so a search committee was held, and settled on a computer science student named Fuahea Semi. But Tonga is ill-equipped for a luger, so to get funds for his run, a marketing company told Semi to change his name to Bruno Banani, in hopes the German underwear maker of the same name would bite.

They did. They agreed to sponsor his training, and he got to luging. He legitimately qualified for the Olympics and participated, finishing 32nd of 39, ahead of a Norwegian and a South Korean. (And some other teams you wouldn't expect to do well, like India and Chinese Taipei.)

What are the odds I see something bad happen to somebody?

This is a sport where people go 90 miles an hour through curvy ice tunnels. There will be crashes.

On the one hand: hahaha, crashes!

Giphy

Let's watch a compilation!

On the other hand: This is a sport where people go 90 mph threw curvy ice tunnels. Not only are these guys wiping out, they're getting hurt, sometimes very badly. This is where I would like you to stop laughing.

Luge is the most dangerous of the sports, although I haven't figured out why -- I'd think the head-first nature and running start of skeleton would make that No. 1.

Two Olympians have died during luge training runs: Just four years ago, Georgia's Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed on his 25th practice run in Vancouver, dying of severe brain injuries on the day of the Opening Ceremonies. Because this happened in 2010 at an international sporting event, you can watch this man die on YouTube. Somebody has uploaded it with a soundtrack of Evanescence. I think "a video of somebody dying on the Internet with a soundtrack of Evanescence" is the worst thing ever to happen.

I watched the video so you don't have to, because it's brutal. The sled comes in too high off of one curve, slides down the ice into the wall at the other end, and luger and luge become separated, with the sled continuing on down the course while the person's body is launched through the air into a huge metal pole. You can tell from the reactions of the on-staff medical crew that even in a sport where people routinely crash at 90 mph, this was out of the ordinary.

Luckily, lessons were learned. The Vancouver track was criticized as being too fast well ahead of the games. The Sochi track contains two uphill sections that will slow sledders down, making it about 10 mph slower than Vancouver.

So, yes, luge is dangerous. As a palate cleanser, let's watch that Indian luger, Shiva Keshavan, fall off his sled and somehow land back on top of it:

Dnoljuf

Why am I not a bobsledder/luger/skeleton person?

Well, the No. 1 reason is probably because you don't want to go 90 mph through a curvy ice tunnel.

(Apparently there is some sort of law requiring anybody who rides in a bobsled to wear a GoPro at some point.)

However, there's one very large barrier to entry here: training facilities.

Luge/bobsled/skeleton runs are enormous, and they only serve one purpose. They cost a ton of money to build, and they need to be refrigerated and maintained so people don't die when riding 90 mph in a sled on them. There are only 16 Olympic-level sledding facilities in the world, the only two in the United States are in Park City and Lake Placid. (Yes, the two places where the Olympics have been held. There's also a natural luge course in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but its not quite the real deal.)

As such, nobody really gets exposed to luge/bobsled/skeleton on their own. The organizations for each have to drum up interest by themselves. The luge organization is not shy about the fact that they are searching for lugers. Basically, they go around the country, set up some sleds with wheels on a paved hill, put some bales of hay to make a course -- and people who show interest/promise can get involved with the actual USA Luge program. Then they have to go train at those legit luge courses.

You probably think it's somewhat easy to get into bobsled based on the interactions you've had with the sport. The two most famous bobsledders we know by name are Herschel Walker and Lolo Jones, who became famous via football and track, respectively, and the most famous bobsled story is about a ragtag group of Jamaican dudes starting a team on a whim and making the Olympics. Also, the majority of bobsled/luge/skeleton is lying down, which we do like 18 hours a day.

It's somewhat true, because on the four-man bobsled, only the driver is really doing the bobsled-operating. Three guys push, one of which slams on the brakes at the end.

But those three guys there to push have to be very, very good athletes -- you know, like an Olympic-level sprinter or Heisman winner. The four guys on the USA men's team who won gold in 2010 were a pair of military servicemen, a former Nebraska football player, and a college decathlete. Most of these people knew nothing about bobsled before someone involved with bobsled asked them to participate.

So, yeah, there's a slim learning curve for bobsled, but only if you're already exceptionally fast and strong.

Throw in the fact that aerodynamic sleds and aerodynamic sledding equipment are rather expensive -- up to $100,000 for a bobsled -- and, yeah, it's kinda tough to get into downhill sledding sports.

More on the Winter Olympics:

Meet Team USA's brightest Winter Olympic athletes

Introducing the Indoor Olympics

The flawless Sochi Olympics | American's bathroom jailbreak

What you need to know about figure skating | Figure skating schedule

Miracle Put on Ice: 1984 US hockey team never had a chance

Hockey: Men’s schedule | All 12 men’s rosters | USA roster analysis