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Feb 16 2014

The skeleton

I am a very risk-averse person. It is not just about risks to myself but also risks to others. This is one reason why I never watch high-risk sporting events live because I just can’t bear the tension of wondering if something will go horribly wrong and result in the competitor suffering serious injuries or even dying. Fortunately this rarely happens in the Olympics where the athletes know what they are doing (I hope).

But at the same time, I like to know what these dangerous events are like and Brian Phillips entertainly describes what the skeleton, one of the craziest of winter sporting inventions, is all about.

To be a skeleton slider, what you do is, you take a steel-framed sled with metal blades and no steering mechanism. (Repeat: no steering mechanism.) You start at the top of the course. You sprint out on the ice pushing your sled in front of you. You are wearing, again, a skintight bodysuit and a Cobra Commander helmet. Once you have built up enough speed, you hurl yourself prone atop your sled, pinning your arms and legs to your side and stretching yourself out like a human ICBM. There are other things you could compare this shape to, I’m just saying. You can control the sled a little by sort of tilting your head and wiggling your feet, but from this point to the bottom of the track, your strategy is basically just to be the comet in your own imagination.

Here is the gold medal winning performance at the 2010 Vancouver games.

Thanks to these cameras that can be worn on a helmet, you can see for yourself what skeleton riders see as they go hurtling down the track.

As Phillips points out about this video, this is much slower than the top speeds you get in the Olympics.

[T]he slider in this video tops out at around 110 kilometers per hour, a good 35 kph slower than the top racers are capable of traveling under the right conditions. It’s the difference between driving 68 on the highway and doing 90.

Me, I prefer curling.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    rq

    (Repeat: no steering mechanism.)

    Actually, the skeleton slider’s steering mechanism is the body – mostly upper (shoulders, head) and sometimes the feet. The sled is usually slightly flexible, and those small distortions can make a huge difference in making a turn (or not). The best sliders often look immobile on their sleds (much like high-class dressage riders), while the less experienced make obvious corrections to their trajectory. Preparation entails a lot of physics and calculations for optimal trajectory, which can change depending on weather conditions, slider body type, and type of skates on the sled (much like tires on a formula car, these skates can be changed according to need). Making a wrong turn can result in tragic consequences (see: skeleton slider from Georgia during Vancouver training runs), so it’s not quite as simple as imagining yourself as a comet. :) Interestingly, it’s not such a new invention at all (just recently added to the list of Olympic winter sports). My favourite run ever (should start at 43.40).
    And yes, on some of the tracks, top sliders will reach speeds exceeding 140km/h, though more commonly top speeds will be around 130. Which is still a lot.

  2. 2
    rq

    Also, I’m less of a follower, but I believe lugists (who go down feet first, on their backs) have even less recourse to steering methods of any kind, especially in the doubles. But I’m not 100% on that.

  3. 3
    Cuttlefish

    According to the coverage, at least, the luge is more dangerous, for 2 reasons. First, the blades are like skate blades, whereas the skeleton steels are more rounded, so accidents are more dangerous. Second, since raising your head enough to see the track will ruin your aerodynamics, lugers tend to just memorize the track instead, and slide blind.

    Either one is too fast for me. I’ll be with you on the curling ice.

  4. 4
    Mano Singham

    I am willing to believe that the luge is more dangerous in some measurable way but to me going down head first seems a hell of a lot scarier than going down feet first.

  5. 5
    Al Dente

    Curling can be dangerous. Drop one of those ~40 lb/18 kg stones on your foot and see how well you walk for the rest of your life.

  6. 6
    Trebuchet

    @3, Cuttlefish: Yep, I heard an announcer on Canadian TV say just that a day or two ago. He also said crashes are more common in bobsled/sleigh than either luge or skeleton.

    As far as serious injuries go, I expect alpine skiing is worse than any of the sliding sports. And then there’s short-track speedskating. Basically roller derby with knives on your feet instead of wheels. They showed video the other day of a competitor nearly bleeding to death on the track.

  7. 7
    Rob Grigjanis

    Gravity plus gradient is bad enough. Adding ice is just…

    I honestly don’t understand the high-speed, barely-in-control, slightest-mistake-could-kill-me mentality. I don’t mean that in a disapproving sense. It’s just an alien psychology to me. That said, if I had to choose between skeleton and curling, it would be a tough choice. Either would require heavy drinking (after skeleton, during curling). I’ll take cross-country skiing any day.

  8. 8
    Donovan

    Rob,

    I used to feel the same way. I wasn’t a coward, but I found no great pleasure in danger. Then I nearly died in a storm at sea and any tiny mistake I might have made would have most likely killed me. I will do my absolute utmost to avoid such a situation again, but I get why these guys do it. I should regret putting myself in harms way like that, but having made it through, I don’t. It was (just that once, I can’t stress enough) wicked awesome.

  9. 9
    Crimson Clupeidae

    I race motorcycles as a fun hobby, so I get the speed thing/danger thing. Some of those ‘sports’ though, look too dangerous even for me!

  10. 10
    rq

    crashes are more common in bobsled/sleigh than either luge or skeleton

    Really? That’s interesting, I always thought it was luge. In luge (esp. doubles), the centre of gravity is much higher from the surface of the ice than in any of the other sledding sports. Skeleton crashes are relatively rare, though.
    Interesting fact about bobsleigh crashes: if they cross the finish line with everyone still attached to / in the sled in whatever position, their run gets counted; if someone falls out and loses contact with the rest of the team, they are disqualified.

  11. 11
    mordred

    Like some others here, I could not imagine a reason to take part in something like that.

    On the other hand as someone with a serious fear of heights a visit to a moderate climbing park is quite an adrenaline rush to me, completely without the risk. ;-)

  12. 12
    Trebuchet

    @rq, 10: I don’ really know for certain, just parroting what I think I heard a TV announcer say. Your mileage may vary.

    The “staying in contact with the sled” requirement apparently applies to skeleton as well. They showed a guy who flipped over and came of but kept one hand on the sled and actually managed to get back on and keep going. He didn’t get a good time, of course, but it counted.

    They probably slid without helmets until relatively recently. Think about that one for a minute!

  13. 13
    Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach

    Watch someone slip and come down spine first on a rock and bash their skull into the ice, then tell me how safe curling is.

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