To qualify for international competition, a course must have at least 15 banked curves linked by straight stretches, or straightaways, with high walls to contain the sleds, and must be a minimum of 1,500 meters (about 1 mile) long. The pitch of the run cannot exceed 15% at any point and must average not less than 8%. The curves cannot be less than 18 meters (approximately 59 feet) in radius and must be between 2 meters (about 6 feet) and 7 meters (about 22 feet) high, according to their radius. Two of the better major runs are the Mt. van Hoevenberg at Lake Placid, N. Y., and Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. Mt. van Hoevenberg is 1 mile long with 16 curves, including the world famous Shady Curve, a hairpin 22-feet (7 meters high. Cortina is 1,700 meters long, with 16 challenging turns.
All critical points on a major course are connected by telephone, and spectators are kept informed of a sled's progress through a public address system. Each run is timed electrically.
The modern bobsled is a highly specialized and complicated steel and aluminum machine, designed strictly for speed and safety. It has two solid axles, with two runners attached to each axle. The front axle turns for steering; the rear one is usually fastened solidly to the frame. The runners are approximately half-round, with a maximum width of 0.67 meter (about 2 feet 2% inches) from center to center. Each runner acts independently of the others. Seats for the crew are barely 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) above the ice. Streamlined cowls on the front of the sled reduce wind resistance, and push handles on the sides help the crew get a fast start.
Sleds are steered with ropes attached to the front runners or with a steering wheel connected by cables to the front runners. Most Americans believe they have more control if they use the wheel. Europeans use ropes almost exclusively on the premise that greater sensitivity in feeling the track is gained in this way. Maximum steering capability results when centrifugal force presses the sled against the ice wall of a curve. Because of the design of the runners and the icy surface of the run, practically no steering can be done in the straightaways.
The brake is situated between the rear runners. It is a hardened steel bar with a serrated edge for cutting into the ice. Two levers with handles, one on either side of the frame, act as a unit in operating the brake. No braking is allowed in competition, because the severe raking action of the brake's serrated teeth would cause ruts that would be dangerous for the next sled. (Brakes may be used in an emergency, but the sled that uses them is automatically disqualified from the competition.)
The maximum length for a 4-man sled is 12 feet 5 inches (3.8 meters); for a 2-man sled, 9 feet (2.7 meters). Because there is no official limit for weight, sleds may vary as much as 50 pounds (23 kg). The average 4-man sled, however, weighs about 507 pounds (230 kg); the average 2-man sled, about 353 pounds (160 kg).
In international competition the combined weight of sled and crew cannot exceed 1,389 pounds (630 kg) for the 4-man team and 827 pounds (375 kg) for the 2-man team. If the maximum weight is not attained, additional weight may be bolted to the sled to equalize the chances of a light crew against heavier opponents. Four-man sleds reach speeds up to 100 miles (160 km) per hour in competition. Two-man sleds run slightly slower.
Teams race the course against time, using a running start from a fixed point. A series of four heats, or runs, two on each of two consecutive days, is required of each team, with the low aggregate of all four times deciding final positions.
In 4-man competition, the team captain steers. The rear man, or brakeman, is responsible for checking skids and stopping the sled. The two middle men assist in starting and supply ballast. All ride the sled in such a manner that a smooth, straight "line" is followed all the way down the course, assuring a fast time. In 2-man competition, the two riders perform the duties of the front and rear members of the 4-man teams.
History of Bobsledding
Bobsledding was originated during the latter part of the 19th century in Switzerland by tobogganers who added runners to their sleds and banked the turns on the slide to increase the speed and thrill of tobogganing. The first artificial bobsled run was built at St. Moritz in 1904. Other winter sports centers soon followed. The first national bobsled championship. competition was held in Austria in 1908 and the first European championships were decided in 1914.
The international governing body for the sport, the Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et Tobogganning, was organized in 1923 and conducted the first world championships in 1927 at St. Moritz. For the United States the governing body is the Amateur Athletic Union.
Bobsledding has been part of the Winter Olympic Games since 1924 (except for 1960).