February 7, 2006
Runnings made cool
It took a Jamaican team to finally put bobsled on the map
GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

Many winter Olympics sports suffer from lack of exposure except in the few countries with a rich tradition in them. Bobsled was a prime example.

That all changed, however, thanks to the astonishing publicity generated for the sport from a warm, tropical Caribbean island. Who'd have thought that was possible?

In 1988 at Calgary, Jamaica shocked the Winter Olympics world by entering a bobsled team in the four-man event.

The team quickly became a sensation and the fans in Calgary fell in love with the 'fish-out-of-water' syndrome.

Yet that was not the end of the publicity. In 1993, the story of the Jamaican bobsled team from the Calgary Olympics was made into a Hollywood movie, Cool Runnings, starring the late, great Canadian funny man, John Candy.

The Jamaican team used track and field sprinters, feeling the starting push part of the event would be where they could generate an advantage over the winter countries. While it didn't work in Calgary (several crashes), by 1992 the team placed 14th, finishing ahead of Olympic powerhouse nations like Russia, Italy, France and the U.S.

The film inspired Brazilian Eric Maleson (who had never seen snow) to create the Brazilian Ice Sports Federation and a bobsled team in 1995.

For Turin, Brazil will keep the tropical countries represented as Jamaica failed to qualify for Turin this year.

Bobsled was invented in Switzerland in the 1800s. Initially, the races were conducted on roads packed down with snow. At the turn of the century, the transition was made to man-made courses.

Technological advancements led to today's tracks that are nearly a mile long and have at least 15 curves. Sleds can now reach astonishing speeds of up to 135 km/h and athletes are pulled at forces reaching five Gs.

The sport was added to the Olympic program in 1924 at Chamonix, France, as a four-man event. The two-man event was added at the 1932 Olympics at Lake Placid. A women's two-man event was added in 2002 at Salt Lake City.

Canadians didn't really take up bobsled until the late 1950s but soon stunned the world when Vic Emery led his four-man team to the gold medal in 1964 at Innsbruck, Austria.

The victory was an astonishing accomplishment made even more so when you consider Emery and his crew had to train indoors in a gym and only got four practice runs prior to the event.

However, Canada slid from the podium for 34 years until phenom Pierre Lueders teamed with David MacEachern to take gold at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.

THE COMPETITION

Teams qualify for the Olympics based on the World Cup standings, which are ranked by the pilot's name. Anyone can be added to a crew, whether it's the four-man or the two-man.

The top 22 pilots from the World Cup standings gain entry to the two-man event along with the top four pilots from the European Challenge Cup and the top two pilots from the North American Challenge Cup. Each country is held to a maximum number of pilots based on multiple rankings. If more than one pilot qualifies but the country has only one space allotted to it, it can choose any of the qualified pilots.

The four-man is qualified the same way as the two except only 20 pilots make it from the World Cup. The two-woman event qualifies 15 pilots from the World Cup. As part of the space allotments, the host nation automatically gets one pilot spot and each continent is also guaranteed at least one spot.

The men compete over two days, taking two runs per day. The winner is declared based on having the fastest total time from all four runs. The women compete over two runs on the same day.

Teams have about 50 to 60 metres to 'push' the sled and climb aboard. Surprisingly, it doesn't matter if the sled tips over as long as all the team members stay inside the sled and cross the finish line.

Sleds have strict weight and size guidelines with the two-man sleds weighing in at almost 400 lb., measuring almost nine feet in length and only two feet across. The women's sled is the same size and weight as the men's but the weight allowance for crew and equipment is almost 100 lb. less at 770 lb. The four-man sleds add more than 80 lb. of weight and are 12.5 feet long but still only two feet across.

The sled has two pieces of rope attached to a bolt in the front frame that allows the driver to steer. Brakes are present but are not used until after the finish line. The sled sits on runners made of steel which are not allowed to be coated, plated or warmed up to enhance sliding.

GOLD MEDALLISTS

1998

Two-Man: Pierre Lueders/David MacEachern, Canada; Gunther Huber/Antonio Tartaglia, Italy

Four-Man: Christoph Langen, Markus Zimmermann, Marco Jakobs, Olaf Hampel, Germany

2002

Two-Man: Christoph Langen/ Markus Zimmerman, Germany

Four-Man: Andre Lange, Enrico Kuehn, Kevin Kuske and Carsten Embach, Germany

Women: Jill Bakken/Vonetta Flowers, U.S.