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CR4 Olympic Coverage: Bobsleigh

Posted January 22, 2014 8:08 AM by HUSH

February will mark the Winter Olympics return of the bobsleigh team made famous via a 1993 Disney movie, the Jamaican men's national team. Cool Runnings, for the few who may be unfamiliar, is the little-engine-that-could story of a bobsled team composed of athletes who had never seen snow, let alone a bobsled track. The narrative comes not from their triumph (as they crashed during the tournament), but from their perseverance. (Developing story: This year's Jamaican squad is crowdsourcing their way to the Olympics).

Well, perhaps if the Jamaican team medals this year we'll get a Cool Runnings 2. No matter, the real event will gross many more viewers than any sequel, as bobsledding is typically one of the most exciting and well-watched events of the Winter Olympics. A significant degree of engineering and design goes into any bobsled event.

The Track

Modern bobsleigh tracks are concrete in construction, and they are coated in ice one of two ways. Older designs rely on ammonia or other coolants to be pumped through pipes that run along the sections of the track, all of which lead to a central refrigeration plant. Such plants can ensure quality ice stays on the track in temperatures up to 80° F. Once the concrete has been cooled, track staff mist the track every 20 minutes for 14 days, nonstop. An additional four days are needed to shape and hone the ice in corners. Other track installations use freeze mats, which instantly freeze layers of water on top of it them, and are one of the most common ways to construct skating ice. Since Calgary 1988, only one company has been entrusted to build each Olympic ice slide: ISC IBG Group.

This year's bobsled and luge events will take place at the Sliding Center Sanki, which is about 40 miles away from Sochi itself. By the end of the 2010 winter games, 30 crashes had taken place at the Whistler Sliding Center in Canada resulting in one fatality, and the International Olympic Committee vowed to have tighter regulations and testing on all future ice slides. Sliding Center Sanki's bobsleigh and luge slide is 1,500 m long, with 18 curves and an estimated average grade of 9.3%. The start elevation is 836 m and the finish elevation is 711.5 m. These figures equate to a slower, easier track for this year's games, despite having Olympic-mandated designs such as a 270° helix.

Russian and American athletes who have tested the track previously have noted that the track is "not very challenging" and slower than many others. The result could be a competition with more parity, but less intrigue.

The Athletes

Male bobsled teams race in either four-man or two-man configurations; women only race in single pairs. The main requirements for a bobsledder are the physical strength to push the sled from its standstill, and the agility to jump into the sled and hunker down. It's no surprise that Olympic sprinters moonlight as Olympic bobsledders, as is the case with the beautiful Lolo Jones.

The forward-most bobsledder is the driver, and he or she controls a simple pulley system which steers the bobsled. At speeds nearing 100 mph even the slightest adjustment is distinct, and the smallest bump with a wall knocks precious half seconds from run times. The rearmost sledder controls the brakes, which are usually only needed after crossing the finish. The two extra crewmembers on four-man sleds are known as pushers, and they only have to be good at pushing.

Bobsleigh coaches use a simple phrasing when telling bobsledders how to train: "mass equals mass." In other words, the larger and stronger the team members, the faster the start they can garner. This is what has been pushing Lolo Jones to late-night McDonald's trips. She's up 30 pounds from her 2012 Summer Olympics weight; track coaches warned that if she gained more then 30 she'd be off the summer teams. There is a maximum weight for each division, and teams that don't come close to this weight are known to add steel weights to their sledding suits.

The Sleds

Minus the national paint schemes, bobsleds all appear the same to spectators. Olympic regulations largely outline the specifications for each sleigh, so variations between them are minute. Modern sleighs are mostly carbon fiber, fiberglass, or Kevlar/aramid in composition. Retractable push bars and handles provide sledders with hand holds. Primitive seats force riders to sit quite close. In fact, the runners-the four blades that support the sled on the ice-make the biggest difference.

Each year, new technologies and testing procedures are introduced for blades. Just as with the sled chassis, there are clear rules regarding the dimensions of the blades. However, teams are allowed to alter the type of steel, blade curvature, and polishing techniques. The weight and construction of the blade often changes according to ice conditions and temperatures. Before competition, the temperature of the blade itself is taken to prevent teams from heating their blades before a run.

Many of the world's leading bobsled teams rely on key sponsorships to maximize their sleighs. The sport has been conquered by European alpine nations, and Switzerland is always the perennial favorite. The Swiss team partnered with Audi to conduct aerodynamic tests and simulations for different bobsled configurations. The American team's bobsled was designed and tested by engineers at BMW who specialize in race cars. Advanced models from these tests provide teams with valuable aerospace insight.

So this February, prepare to witness one of the Winter Olympic's most awesome spectacles. Bobsleigh is just one of many instances where high-level engineering has a distinct impact on the games. These competitions are often won by hundredths or even thousandths of a second; even the slightest tolerances could mean gold or a DNF (did not finish).


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Join Date: Dec 2009
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Re: CR4 Olympic Coverage: Bobsleigh

01/23/2014 3:53 PM

I've visited but not used the Utah Olympic Park. They'll take you down the track in a bobsled for $75 (a few years ago) per ride. There are also local sliding clubs.

The Germans and Austrians would frown at your singling out the Swiss, but whatever.

The sliding events are best watched on TV. Live, you hear the roar of the sled as it approaches (bobsleds are really loud, especially the 4-man), then see the sled for about 2 seconds, then wait 5+ minutes for the next one.

Next time you're on the freeway, imagine sticking your arm out the window and "tapping" the barrier. Watching a sled "tap" the wall during a race is pretty illuminating.

Luge is the most dangerous out of bobsled/skeleton/luge, because the athlete is higher off the ice without protection. Skeleton is actually pretty safe. Any athlete off their sled runs the risk of getting "ice rash," which is very much like "road rash." Their skin suit gets abraded away quickly unless they roll around as they slide down the track.

Adding weight to your bobsleigh to meet the upper weight limit doesn't make sense to me. It makes it harder to accelerate, and it's usually the start that separates the top teams. Better to bring on a bigger and stronger pusher(s).

A track sprinter makes a good bobsled pusher, as does an American footballer. It's all about pure power.

Ignorance is no sin. Willful ignorance is unforgiveable.
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