The history of bobsledding
Although the sled has been around for centuries as a mode of transportation, the sport of bobsled racing didn’t begin until late 19th century when the Swiss attached a steering mechanism to a toboggan.
Bobsledding was actually started in Albany, New York around 1897 and then introduced to Switzerland. The sport became popular among American and British tourists spurring the growth of the sport in winter resorts throughout Europe. The first racing sleds were made of wood but were soon replaced by steel sleds that came to be known as bobsleds so named because of the way crews bobbed back and forth to increase their speed on the straight ways. They soon realized it didn't work, but the name stuck.
The first organized competition in the new sport was held on the Cresta Run, St Moritz on January 5, 1898, with five-passenger sleds. (Two of the passengers had to be women.) For better steering, they were equipped with four runners, positioned on axles much like the four wheels of a car. With the new design, speeds on the mountainside became dangerously fast, so an artificial bobsled run with a gentler slope was built in St Moritz in 1902. About 20 years later however, the modern sport of bobsledding began to form. Athletes from other sports were drawn to bobsledding. Sportsmen from track and field, handball, basketball, American football and gymnastics were recruited into the sport to deliver and explosive push at the start.
After a hiatus because of World War 1, the Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh and Tobogganing (FIBT) was established in 1923 to standardize the rules so that the sport could be included in the first Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix, France in 1924. Only the four-man sleds there. A five-man competition replaced the four-man in 1928, but the four-man returned in 1932 and has been on the program ever since.
In the early years, there was no such thing as training. Competitors simply bought or rented a sled, started out as a rider and then took the wheels after a few runs. 1952 brought a critical rule change, limiting the total weight of crew and sled. This ended the era of extreme heavyweight bobsledders. More athletic teams kept up with the changes in sleds and tracks. Now, the world’s top teams train for the entire year and usually compete on artificial ice tracks in swift modern sleds, made of fiberglass and steel.
Until the advent of World Cup competition in the mid-1980s bobsled success was determined solely by performance at the Olympics, World and European Championships. Since its inception, however, the World Cup series has added an exciting new dimension to the sport where versatility on different tracks and season-long consistency are rewarded.
North America’s first artificial bobsled run was built in 1911in Montebello, Quebec. The first in the United States was built on Mount Von Hoevenberg, near Lake Placid, Near York for the 1932 Games when the two-man event was added to the Olympic program. World Championships for both the two-man and four-man bobsleds have been held since 1931.There are now three other tracks in North America-Calgary and Vancouver, Canada and Park City, Utah. There are 14 tracks in the world.
The two-man bobsled was developed in the United States. It was originally made simply by connecting two small sleds with a pivot, which allowed the front sled to turn, bringing the second sled with it—much like a tractor-trailer combination. Until the 1950’s, American bobsledders were the best in the world, in part because of technological innovations. Bob and Bill Linney in the late 1930s have built a two-man sled with a steel plank as a linkage. The plank’s flexibility allowed much greater speed through turns. The Linney brothers also built the first sled with the side-mounted handles, which allowed team members to push a sled to a flying start and then leap aboard just as it reaches the starting lines. Bill Linney, in 1946, developed the first all-steel sled with shock absorbers to increase speed.
The U. S. won at least one gold medal in bobsledding at each Olympics until 1952, when they won silver medals in both events. Since then, European countries, especially Switzerland and Germany have dominated international competition. The Swiss have won more medals in Olympic, World and European championships and World Cup competitions than any other nation. East Germany became a major player in the mid-1970s by placing a great emphasis on sled design and construction. And since reunification, Germany has continued to be successful. Canada, Italy, and Austria have also been strong in the past. Female bobsledders return on the scene in Europe and North America in the 1990s and women bobsledding was added to the Olympic program in 2002.
Despite the fact that bobsledding is a sport that requires ice and that it originated in Albany, it has spread to the rest of the world. Its popularity has spread to nations like Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, Jamaica. With the inclusion of new teams, the dominance of the top teams is being challenged. At the 1995 World Championships, eight different nations placed in the top ten for the four-man bobsled.
With new artificial tracks built in Nagano, Japan, Park City, Utah, and Whistler, British Columbia, bobsled racing is sliding into what promises to be a bright future.
- The maximum length for two-man sleds, sometimes called boblets, is 8 ft 10 in.
- Four-man sleds can be 12 ft 6 in long.
- Maximum weights, including crew and the equipment, are 860 lbs for two-man sleds and 1389 lbs for four-man sleds.
- Additional weight can be bolted onto the sled in order to reach the maximum weight. Bobsleds run on four blades know as runners. The shorter pair is bolted in the front of the sled and the longer ones are in the rear.
- The athletes push the sled to get it started.
- Bobsledders wear a skin tight uniform made from lycra and/or combined with a vinyl coated stretch material.
- Short sleeves are not allowed.
- All competitors must wear a fully protective helmet during practice runs and races.
- Drivers must wear goggles and gloves are optional.
- To provide traction during the start of the race, the athletes wear spiked shoes that grip the ice.
- The top of spikes may not be thicker than 1 mm; spikes may not be longer than 4 mm and they may not be arranged further than 3 mm from each other.
The idea of the Jamaica bobsled team was that of two Americans who lived in Jamaica. They saw the push cart derby in Jamaica ( similar to the American soap box races) and thought it looked like bobsledding.
The first four members of the Jamaican bobsled team were:
- Devon Harris, a lieutenant in the Second Battalion, of the Jamaican Defence Force
- Dudley Stokes, a captain in Air Wing of the Jamaican Defence Force
- Michael White, a private in the National Reserves the Jamaican Defence Force
- Samuel Clayton, a railway engineer
The team was selected in September 1987 and first went down a bobsled run that October in Calgary, Canada. After a stint in Innsbruck, Austria and Lake Placid , New York, the team made its debut at the Calgary, Olympics in February 1988. Samuel Clayton was replaced by Chris Stokes.
The team is best remembered for crashing on the third run of the four-man event and became the subject of the popular Disney movie Cool Runnings.
The team returned to the Olympics in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France where they turned in an average performance. At the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the Jamaicans stunned many of their critics by finishing in 14th place, ahead of both United States teams, Russia, France, Russia and Italy.
In 2000 and 2001 the Jamaicans won the gold medal at the World Push Bobsled Championships.
The Jamaican Bobsled Team failed to qualify for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, however, one former team member Lascelles Brown became a Canadian citizen and won a silver medal for Canada at those Games.
Jamaica also failed to qualify for the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Canada.