Monday, February 17, 2014

The Case Against Bobsledding

The origins of this sport were in tobogganing. Can you recognize the modern bobsled as a toboggan? You cannot. A bobsleigh was invented by putting sled runners on a toboggan, as a novelty for mountain resort guests. It was primarily popular at St. Moritz and a few competing resort areas in Switzerland and Germany. Next they added on a steering wheel. Then they put on the space cowling to cut down on air drag. Now the top of the line bobsleds cost between $25,000 and purportedly a million dollars for the BMW-designed sleds.

There are only 17 bobsled runs in the entire world. 15 of them were built for Olympic games. Originally just laid out on a mountain on snow, first they watered them down to get an ice run to build up the speed. Now they're all artificially-iced, prescribed courses. ALL of the modern tracks have been designed by one person.

It's not like snowboarding or archery where anybody who wants to can try out the sport as a novice. A junior in the US program spends $40 a day just to stay at the facility; it takes $20,000 a year to keep a junior in the training program for luge, skeleton, and bobsled. The ones who prove to be good drivers but aren't good enough athletes for luge or skeleton are the only ones who "graduate" to bobsled. It's actually far more accessible to join motor sports as a junior competitor. It's more elitist than yachting. Bavarian Curling - Ice Stock Sport - has far more participants worldwide.  Casual Olympics watchers may recall the Crown Prince of Monaco was an Olympic Bobsledder, granting a set of sprinters citizenship and bankrolling the whole thing because…well, he wanted to be an Olympic athlete.

You *can* take a bobsled ride - with a professional driver in front of you and brakeman behind you, from a start where somebody else pushes off, for half the distance the Olympians go (at least in Utah and at Lake Placid). For your 90 seconds at Lake Placid, you pay $85 (but you get a souvenir photo).

There are two kinds of bobsledders. There are the drivers, who are as specialized an athlete as you can imagine. They basically spend their training time not associated with training to make ten steps pushing the sled in memorizing the exact turns of all the bobsled runs in the world. Over and over they run them in simulations, until they've got full memory of every turn. Not to say there isn't a lot of skill involved; but unlike skiing, where the slopes are different and often the courses are laid out differently from year to year, the bobsled runs are never changing.

Then there are the pushers/brakemen. Their one and only skill is running fast and jumping in the sled, which is why you have world class sprinters now replacing pretty much every former winter sports person.

As Slate pointed out in an article, you get highly predictable results from a competition where you make four runs on exactly the same track with the same athletes. The team in first place after one run wins 70% of the time, after two runs 85%, and after three runs - 100%. Slate called the fourth run the most meaningless contest in athletics, and with the exception of the Pro Bowl, I will agree.

Even so, the variation among the top competitors is in thousandths of seconds. The predictability of the times on a given event is extremely high.

it is a sport that exists for one reason only: because it's an Olympic event. (A tenuous enough one that it was briefly dropped in 1960 due to lack of participating countries.) Countries want those medal counts so they pay for the Olympic program (Jamaica's team is currently sponsored by the Jamaican tourism board) because it's an Olympic sport. There are a few sports invented for the Olympics (decathlon, for example, or that funky skateboard-on-skis/snowboards event, slopestyle, they added in recently or any of the X games things) but they're hybrids of other events or sports.

I say: fake sport. There is nothing "sporting" about it, little drama or amazement at the athleticism.