Want to Make the Olympics? Try Bobsledding.
Brian Blickenstaff went to a not-quite-top-tier bobsled competition, and he found a bunch of people with a lot more in common than matching helmets
It’s about 9:30 a.m. on January 20, a Sunday, and a sled packed with four large, helmeted British men is horizontal in turn 16 of the Königssee Kunsteisbahn. I stand trackside just beyond the turn on a small viewing platform, and as the sled levels out into the straightaway, I realize it’s pointed almost right at me. I take a step back—more a flinch than anything. I’m not actually on the bobsled track, but I’m close enough that my spidey sense goes off. As the sled flashes by, I can feel the wind. It must be going 70 miles per hour? Eighty? It’s hard to say, and it’s already around another corner and out of sight.
This is my first live bobsledding event, but I’m already aware of several truths about the sport. The first: you must be slightly insane to even try bobsledding. I mean: “I’m going to slide down this here mountain on ice. Who’s with me?” Uh, not me. Definitely not me.
But there are less obvious truths, too. No sport on earth translates as poorly to television as bobsledding. Consider the speed: I knew bobsleds went fast before I came here. I watch the Olympics. In the early 1990s, Cool Runnings had a special place in my adolescent heart. But it took me being here, at the 2013 Europa Cup of four-man bobsledding, to really get it. On television, your sense of speed comes from the changing cameras and what the announcer tells you. You know the sleds are moving fast, but there’s no thrill. At a live bobsled event, it’s different. It’s all thrill. You hear the sled coming long before you see it. You feel the track tremble as it slides by. And then silence. It’s just you and the mountain.
In all sports, setting is important, and television does an excellent job of capturing the roaring crowds at, say, the Super Bowl. Based on the broadcast, viewers can imagine what it must be like to be at the Super Bowl and feel confident that their imagined setting is close to the real thing. Not so in bobsledding. The kunsteisbahn is tucked into the shadow of a mountain just across a small lake from the city of Königssee, a place of fairytale-like beauty. The surrounding area was once the hunting grounds of the Bavarian royal family. Today, it’s the gateway to the Berchtesgaden National Park. The Alps here are as rugged and sharp as shards of broken glass. The track’s bottom-most U-turn is only 40 meters from Lake Königssee. When standing between the lake and the track, you become aware of a strange juxtaposition between speed on the mountain and peace on the water. When a sled comes, the track moans and creaks, and, for a moment, the scene seems violently foreign—the peace shattered—until the sled is gone again and the lakeshore returns, suddenly, to serenity. I’m so affected by it all that I must occasionally remind myself that the beauty of this place is real, and that people are doing this dangerous thing in pursuit of the Olympics.
THE HOLY GRAIL OF bobsledding is the Olympics, which, as you know, comes every four years. In terms of importance, the World Championship, which happens every non-Olympic year, comes next. And while prestigious, both these events are essentially weekend-long tournaments. You can’t have a sport with only one meaningful event for two days per year, so in addition to the Olympics and the World Championships, bobsledders participate in different circuits every winter. These circuits (in bobsledding they’re called “Cups,” as if this wasn’t confusing enough) take place at multiple locations and are decided, at season-end, by an accumulation of points, much like NASCAR or Formula One. The accumulated points also count toward a driver’s world ranking (the push athletes aren’t ranked), which determines qualification for the Olympics and the World Championships. Some circuits are worth more points than others and are therefore more prestigious. A stage win in the Europa Cup, for example, is worth 120 points, whereas a win in the top-tier World Cup earns a driver 225.
While the Europa Cup is not the most important event in bobsledding, and while the best bobsledders often skip it entirely, from a live-spectator perspective it’s appealing because there are no crowds, and I don’t have to elbow anybody out of the way to get trackside. I have a lot of access, in other words. But it’s not just physical access. There’s something inherently interesting and relatable about watching people compete when they are not yet the best at what they do. Athletes at this level are good, but they haven’t developed the steel-eyed ruthlessness of the top competitors. As a spectator, you see more mistakes at this level. You can watch the athletes learn. There’s a kind of purity on display here that gets painted over at the highest level. At an event like the Europa Cup, you get to go through the refining process with the athletes.
As I sit in the finish line grandstand and watch sleds finish and stop, little white chunks fly up behind each passing crew, an ice wake of sorts. Some of the brakemen don’t get on the brakes fast enough and blow right through the finish area, and the race MC makes an announcement reminding athletes to stop quickly.
THE KUNSTEIBAHN IS 1.27 kilometers long for bobsleds (longer for luge, shorter for junior events). Completed in 1968, it’s the oldest, permanent, artificially-cooled bobsled track in the world. With a maximum downhill grade of nine percent, it takes some doing to stop a full sled, and gravity has a part to play in the process: maybe the last one-fifth of the track is actually uphill. The rest is up to the brakemen, who sit in back and pull on levers that drive a kind of rake into the ice.
When the sleds stop, the athletes just sit there for a moment, and it’s easy to imagine them silently thanking God for delivering them safely down the mountain. Their heads are the only visible body parts, and the sled is so small you’d think they’re a bunch of kids. Only when they stand up and help the track crew move the sled off the ice does it become apparent how big they all are.
The weight of a full sled is capped at 1,388.9 pounds, and teams add weight to get as close to that number as possible before competition. Teams with heavier athletes require less added weight and can use a lighter sled, which is easier to push in the start. Where, exactly, do you find big, fast people who aren’t doing other things? Jordan Smallin, one of Team Great Britain’s brakemen, told me most of the athletes are former “sprinters from athletics or rugby players.” Smallin ran hurdles at a national level before making the switch to bobsledding and looks about 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds. He joined the team in the spring of 2012, which seems like a short timeline, but is not exactly atypical in the world of bobsledding. Look at Lolo Jones. She didn’t start bobsledding until after running hurdles in last summer’s Olympics, and she’s already a World Champion bobsledder. Even the pilots, the position that requires the most skill, are basically indistinguishable from push athletes because most of them spend a season or two as pushers before moving on to pilot.
IT’S NOW 10:30, AND I’m standing just outside the starting house at the top of the hill. I can see four Polish men on the starting line. Their sled’s runners are slotted into the ice’s starting grooves and the little push handles stick out on both sides. The athletes have helmets on, but I can tell by the way they shift their weight and breathe that they’re keyed up. They should be. The start is everything.
In fact, the start is so important that the MC announces each sled’s start time in addition to its overall run time, like a race within a race. If you think about it, bobsledding is an exercise in managing momentum. For most of the race, it’s the driver’s responsibility to use gravity to build momentum by taking good lines through turns and by not hitting walls. The only time a team can actively add to a sled’s momentum is at the start—in those first 50 meters when they push. This would be fairly straightforward, except these are all big guys who have to run on ice and then load themselves into a tiny, human-propelled bullet. And they have to do it all in about five seconds. Mistakes made higher up the track are worse than those made near the finish, because the effect of squandered momentum is cumulative, and a mistake in the beginning can render the rest of the race pointless. The sled load is crucial to giving the pilot a chance, and teams practice this year-round.
The Polish team’s run starts off like all the others. They lean into their task like four guys pushing a broken-down car. The driver jumps in, but as the pusher on the right side tries to hop in, he catches his inside foot on the sled’s lip. For a moment it looks like the sled will slide down the mountain with him running alongside. But just before the sled enters the first turn, the brakeman, from a seated position, reaches out and grabs his teammate around the waist and pulls him, face up, into his lap.
The athletes standing in the nearby warm-up area stopped their high kicks and squats to watch the commotion, and they burst into applause and shouts of “nice!” as the sled enters the first corner with all parties aboard.
After the giggles and applause, the gallery goes quiet for a moment. The Polish sled avoided catastrophe—the pusher could have been seriously injured—but accidents do happen when people decide to slide down mountains on ice. People get hurt. Some die. The last fatal accident in bobsledding occurred at Königssee in 2004, when a women’s two-person sled crashed in a training run, killing a 24-year-old Yvonne Cernota, who was just making the transition from pusher to pilot. (In the 2010 Olympics, 21-year-old Georgian luge slider Nadar Kumaritashvili crashed during a training run, struck a pole, and died.)
As heart-stopping as the Polish sled’s close call was, I don’t dwell on it. But something about the way the brakeman pulled in his teammate and the way the rest of the athletes cheered stays with me. In that moment, I became aware of a kind of camaraderie that exists among the gathered athletes. It takes something—a loose switch, a difficult-to-satiate need for adrenaline, or a whole lot of willful ignorance—to jump in a bobsled and shoot down a mountain, but there is more to it than that. It’s not just about their shared Olympic dream, either. Bobsledding—with all these repackaged athletes—is a sport for second chances.
You won’t see this on an NBC broadcast. Or, at least, you can’t see it on your own, without it being packaged as a lame character piece about overcoming adversity. At the Europa Cup, where so many of the athletes were good-but-not-good-enough at football or hurdling or whatever before they transitioned to bobsledding, everyone is overcoming adversity. Their peers from their previous sporting lives gave up on their Olympic dreams long ago and resigned themselves to watching the games on TV. But these guys refuse to let go. It’s that second chance that binds these athletes together. Well, that and a 12-foot aerodynamic sled.