Bobsleigh or bobsled is a winter sport in which teams of two or four friends make timed runs down narrow, twisting, banked, iced tracks in a gravity-powered sleigh. The timed runs are combined to calculate the final score.
The various types of sleds came several years before the first tracks were built in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where the original bobsleds were adapted upsized luge/skeleton sleds designed by the adventurously wealthy to carry passengers. All three types were adapted from boys' delivery sleds and toboggans.
Competition naturally followed, and to protect the working class and rich visitors in the streets and byways of St Moritz, bobsledding was eventually banned from the public highway. In the winter of 1903/1904 the Badrutt family, owners of the historic Kulm Hotel and the Palace Hotel, allowed Emil Thoma to organise the construction of the first familiarly configured 'half-pipe' track in the Kulm Hotel Park, ending in the village of Cresta. It has hosted the sport during two Olympics and is still in use today.
International bobsleigh competitions are governed by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation, also known as FIBT from the French Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing. National competitions are often governed by bodies such as the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton.
The name is derived from the action some early competitors adopted of bobbing back and forth inside their sleds to increase speed.
Although sledding on snow or ice had long been popular in many northern countries, the origins of bobsleighing as a modern sport are relatively recent. Its foundation began when hotelier Caspar Badrutt (1848–1904) convinced some English regulars to remain through the entire winter at his hotel in the mineral spa town of St. Moritz, Switzerland. Keeping them entertained with food, alcohol, and activities, he quickly established the concept of "winter resorting". Badrutt has done it because he was annoyed his regular English clientele were only staying at his hotel during the summer months. It only took a couple of years for wintering at Badrutt's St Moritz hotel to become very fashionable in Victorian Britain. But increased numbers led some guests to search for new diversions. In the early 1870s some adventurous English guests began adapting boys' delivery sleds for recreational purposes. However, they soon began colliding with pedestrians in the icy lanes, alleyways and roads of St Moritz.
Guests soon began to invent "steering means" for the sleds. This led to the development of the bobsleigh (bobsled): two cresta's (skeleton sleds) attached together with a board that had a steering mechanism at the front. However, the impetus to steer the sleds permitted longer runs through the town. Longer runs also meant higher speeds on curves. Local sentiments varied about these informal competitions but eventually complaints grew so vociferous that Badrutt was forced to take action. His solution was to build a basic natural ice run for his guests near the town. Badrutt had worked hard to popularize wintering in the mountain resort and was worried customers would stop coming due to boredom. He also did not want to make enemies in the town from locals injured by bobsleds. He opened the world's first natural ice half-pipe track in the late 1870s.
Formal competitions started down the natural ice Cresta Run in 1884, which was built in an annual partnership between guests and local people. The run, which is still in operation as of 2014, has served as a host track for skeleton at two Winter Olympics (1928 and 1948). As one of the few natural weather tracks in the world, it does not use artificial refrigeration. It is not known how much the original track evolved in the early years as the three sports matured and stabilized. The first club formed in 1897, and the first purpose-built track solely for bobsleds opened in 1902 outside St Moritz. Over the years, bobsleigh tracks evolved from straight runs to twisting and turning tracks. The original wooden sleds gave way to streamlined fiberglass and metal ones.
The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (FIBT) was founded in 1923. Men's four-man bobsleigh appeared in the first ever Winter Olympic Games in 1924, and the men's two-man bobsleigh event was added in 1932. Though not included in the 1960 Winter Olympics, bobsleigh has featured in every Winter Olympics since. Women's bobsleigh competition began in the US in 1983 with two demonstration races in Lake Placid, New York, one held in February and the second held during the World Cup races in March 1983. Women's two-woman bobsleigh made its Olympic debut at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. Bobsleigh is also contested at American, European, and World Cup championships.
Germany and Switzerland have proven the most successful bobsleighing nations measured by overall success in European, World, World Cup, and Olympic championships. Since the 1990s Germans have dominated in international competition, having won more medals than any other nation. Italy, Austria, United States and Canada also have strong bobsleigh traditions.
Bobsleighs can attain speeds of 150 km/h (93 mph), with the reported world record being 201 km/h (125 mph).
"Bobsleigh competitors are very noble". The World Fair Play Trophy was awarded to an Italian bobsleigh competitor, Eugenio Monti, 1964, then 30 years later to an Australian bobsleigh competitor, Justin McDonald, 1994.
Modern tracks are made of concrete, coated with ice. They are required to have at least one straight section and one labyrinth (three turns in quick succession without a straight section). Ideally, a modern track should be 1,200 to 1,300 metres (3,900–4,300 ft) long and have at least fifteen curves. Speeds may exceed 120 kilometres per hour (75 mph), and some curves can subject the crews to as much as 5 g.
Some bobsleigh tracks are also used for luge and skeleton competition.
Some tracks offer tourists rides in bobsleighs, including those at Sigulda, Latvia; Innsbruck-Igls, Austria; Calgary, Alberta, Canada; Whistler, British Columbia, Canada; Lillehammer, Norway; Cesana Pariol, Italy; Lake Placid, US; Salt Lake City, Utah, US and La Plagne, France.
Modern day sleighs combine light metals, steel runners, and an aerodynamic composite body. Competition sleighs must be a maximum of 3.80 metres (12.5 ft) long (4-crew) or 2.70 metres (8.9 ft) long (2-crew). The runners on both are set at 0.67 metres (2.2 ft) gauge. Until the weight-limit rule was added in 1952, bobsleigh crews tended to be very heavy to ensure the greatest possible speed. Nowadays, the maximum weight, including crew, is 630 kilograms (1,390 lb) (4-man), 390 kilograms (860 lb) (2-man), or 340 kilograms (750 lb) (2-woman), which can be reached via the addition of metal weights. The bobsleighs themselves are designed to be as light as possible to allow dynamic positioning of mass through the turns of the bobsleigh course.
Although bobsleigh crews once consisted of five or six people, they were reduced to two- and four-person sleighs in the 1930s. The crew has a pilot, a brakeman, and pushers. Athletes are selected based on their speed and strength, which are necessary to push the sleigh to a competitive speed at the start of the race. Pilots must have the skill, timing, and finesse to steer the sleigh along the path, or "line", that will produce the greatest speed.
In modern bobsleighs, the steering system consists of two metal rings that actuate a pulley system located in the forward cowling that turns the front runners. For example, to turn left, the pilot would pull the left ring. Only subtle steering adjustments are necessary to guide the sled; at speeds up to 80 miles per hour (130 km/h), anything larger would result in a crash. The pilot does most of the steering, and the brakeman stops the sled after crossing the finish line by pulling the sled's brake lever.
Women compete in women's bobsleigh (which is always two-woman) and men in both two and four-man competitions. Women were confirmed as being able to compete in any four-"man" bobsleigh event, as from 25 September 2014, either as part of a mixed-sex team or an all-female team.
Individual runs down the course, or "heats", begin from a standing start, with the crew pushing the sled for up to 50 metres (160 ft) before boarding; though the pilot does not steer, grooves in the ice make steering unnecessary until the sled leaves the starting area. While poor form during the initial push can lose a team the heat, it is otherwise rarely, if ever, decisive. Over the rest of the course, a sleigh's speed depends on its weight, aerodynamics, runners, the condition of the ice, and the skill of the pilot.
Race times are recorded in hundredths of seconds, so even seemingly minor errors – especially those at the beginning, which affect the remainder of the heat – can have a measurable impact on the final race standings.
The men's and women's standings for normal races are calculated over the aggregate of two runs or heats. At the Olympic Winter Games and World Championships, all competitions (for both men and women) consist of four heats.