Skeleton Racing

Insider Info

Skeleton racing has become a booming sport throughout the world.

Skeleton racing, also called skeleton sliding, is the ancestor of the luge and bobsled Olympic events. Headfirst, face down and hands back, skeleton racers approach speeds of 80 mph as they zip down icy bobsled tracks. Racers steer their sleds on the curved tracks only by shifting their weight from side to side.

In competition, a skeleton race begins at the top of a track with a running start by the athlete. Holding the top of the sled by the push handles, the competitor bursts off a start block, pushing the sled in front as he runs alongside and slightly behind it.

The athlete wears track spikes to grip the ice and a skin-tight rubber suit to increase aerodynamics. After pushing the sled to the maximum acceleration, he lunges smoothly on the sled and pilots down the track.

The competitor with the fastest time from top to bottom of the mile-long track is the winner of the race. Every second counts. The second place finisher often loses critical time by not maintaining an aerodynamic position, having an incorrect line through a turn or brushing a shoulder against a concrete wall while traveling the course.

Skeleton, the world's first sliding sport, began in the late 1880s in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The sport appeared in the 1928 and 1948 Olympic Games at St. Moritz.

Skeleton racing lost its popularity until the late 1970s, when a renewed interest in Europe brought the sport back to the public eye. Today, more than 20 nations have skeleton sliding teams. World Cup and world championships are held annually. Women compete equally with men in skeleton racing. Women and men compete for national and world team positions.

The International Olympic Committee recently has reinstated skeleton as a full medal Winter Olympic Games sport, starting in Utah.

The name skeleton originally came from the metal sled that some said looked like a skeleton. The modern skeleton sled is comprised of a steel chassis equipped with steel runners. The top of the sled is a tray designed to support and contain the athlete. The bottom of the sled is a steel or fiberglass sheet attached to the bottom of the chassis to provide aerodynamic benefits.

No steering, braking or propulsion apparatus are on the skeleton sled. The sled travels only with the pushing force from an athlete at the top of the track and the force of gravity on the sled zipping down the course. A skeleton participant steers the sled by shifting his weight. A rightward shift produces a right turn, and a leftward lean results in a left turn.

The runners on a skeleton sled are typically considered the most important factor in sled performance. The runners are round steel rods with grooves toward the rear. The grooves serve as blades that dig into the ice and control the sled. The blades can be adjusted to improve performance depending on weather conditions and riding style.

Minor bumps and bruises are the only injuries common to skeleton racing.

"A lot of sliders bruise their arms from hitting the walls," says skeleton racer Chris Soule. He is a U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation team member. "Although we have protective bunks, a lot of shoulder widths are wider than the sled. We have had people with bruised up chins and legs if they hit anywhere on the run."

Getting Started

For competitors, skeleton racing is an expensive sport. A full season of sliding can cost about $50,000. A new sled ranges from $3,000 to $6,000. Runners cost about $500. Helmets and spike shoes can cost up to several hundred dollars. Other expenses include travel and lodging.

Skeleton racers wear track spike boots to grip the ice when they get a running start. These shoes can cost up to $100. A helmet, gloves, speed suit and assorted pads are other clothing needed by participants.

For the recreational skeleton sliders, the sport can be less expensive. A sliding license is required in many countries. The license costs about $50. Many skeleton enthusiasts join clubs where they pay an annual membership fee, which runs in the $40 range. Clubs often pay training and race fees as well as provide the equipment.

Two skeleton tracks are located in the U.S.: in Lake Placid, New York, and Park City, Utah. The track in Calgary is also quite accessible for those in the U.S. Those three tracks, along with others worldwide, regularly hold skeleton racing schools for those who want to get involved in the sport. The governing body for skeleton, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation, also holds schools.

"The schools are great because they start you off at a lower point on the track and gradually work their way up to the top of the track, giving one a chance to get used to the track and faster speeds," says Michelle Kelly. She is a member of the Canadian National Skeleton Team. "You also get a lot of instruction, from sled maintenance to driving tips, by sliders who have done it for years. It's a great learning atmosphere and a lot of fun."

Most everyone can enjoy recreational skeleton racing, but competitors on national teams require more advanced skills and higher physical and mental fitness levels. In addition, participants must be at least 16 years old to obtain a skeleton license.

"Anyone can go through one of the schools and learn how to slide, but the ones who have been able to endure and succeed in the sport are those who can run fast and are able to compete in high-stress situations," says Soule. "A lot of track and field athletes do well on the 'push.' We have pilots and other extreme sports athletes who seem to do well at sliding."

To get started in skeleton sliding, Kelly recommends starting with one session at a school. Get other students' opinions on a particular school before enrolling.

"If you like speed or are a daredevil then this sport is for you," Kelly says. "Even if you just want to slide recreationally, it is a blast. If you desire to go even further and challenge yourself to try and compete internationally, then this is a great sport to do it. The friendships and experiences you will gain are invaluable. It is truly a rewarding sport, and I can't say enough positives about it."

Career opportunities related to skeleton racing include coaches, team managers, race officials, fund-raising professionals and governing board members for the various clubs.

"As the sport gets more recognition, more jobs with salary will open up," Kelly says. "Jobs also are being created in the area of commentating, as most commentators would not know too much about the sport at this time. As for me, that is the area I am most interested in pursuing once my athletic career is over. But I would not rule out helping with the team, to give back to the sport I have got so much out of over the years."


International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation

U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation

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