Although the sled has been around for centuries as a mode of transportation, the sport of bobsled didn’t begin until the late 19th century when the Swiss attached a steering mechanism to a toboggan. In 1897, the worlds first bobsleigh club was founded in St. Moritz, Switzerland, spurring the growth of the sport in winter resorts throughout Europe. By 1914, bobsled races were taking place on a wide variety of natural ice course.
By the 1950s, however, the sport as we know it today had begun to take shape. As the critical importance of the start was recognized, strong, fast athletes in other sports were drawn to bobsledding. Track and field competitors, handballers, gymnasts and others who could deliver a vigorous push at the start were much sought after. In 1952, a critical change limited the total weight of crew and sled ended the era of the super heavyweight bobsledder and sealed the future of the sport as an athletic contest of the highest caliber.
More athletic crews went hand-in-hand with advances in sleds and tracks. Today, the worlds top teams train year-round and compete mostly on artificial ice tracks in sleek high-tech sleds made of fiberglass and steel. Until the advent of World Cup competition in the mid-1980s, bobsleigh success was determined by performance at the Olympics, World and European Championships. Since its inception, however, the World Cup series had added an exciting new dimension to the sport where versatility on different tracks and season-long consistency are rewarding.
Sleds can weight a maximum 360kg (792lbs) for two-man and 630kg (1,386lbs) for four-man. They reach speeds of 80-90 mph, with 4 G-forces in the curves depending on the track. They can cost as much as $35,000 to build while a set of runners can cost $5,000. Like tires on a stock car, a variety of sets of runners are needed for different track configurations, ice and weather conditions.
There are two types of athletes in bobsled – pilots and pushers.
Pilots steer the sled and are the leaders of their team. They need quick reactions, great hand-eye coordination and the ability to push the sled fast at the start.
Those athletes who push the sled fast at the start. The athlete in the back of the sled is called the brakeman. He engages a brake (a metal claw which digs into the ice) after the sled crosses the finish line. Push athletes are generally recruiting from sports like football and track. At the start, the athletes run on ice using special shoes with 500 tiny spikes under the ball of the foot.