Don't know anything about bobsled? No problem. Here are all the basics you need to know before the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

By Connor Grossman
November 29, 2017

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea are right around the corner! That means it's time to watch sports you might not have seen in four years. To help you feel at least a little more informed—either to impress your friends or fake your way through a conversation with an actual expert—SI will be providing rookie's guides to each of the 15 sports. These will be published daily, Monday through Friday, from December 4-22.

It's possible your experience with bobsled (or bobsleigh, as it's referred to everywhere outside of North America) might be limited to the cult classic, Cool Runnings. That's fine. We're here to sharpen your knowledge of the sport before the first sled hits the track in PyeongChang.

What events are we going to see?

The Olympics will feature three different bobsled events: two-man bobsled, four-man bobsled and women's bobsled. It's important to note that as of the last Winter Olympics in Sochi, both men and women can participate in the four-person bobsled event. The women's bobsled event is only a two-person event, although four women could occupy a bobsled in the four-man event (which hasn't yet happened).

How long has bobsledding been in the Olympics?

Bobsledding has been a part of the games since the first Winter Olympics in 1924. The sport first took roots in Upstate New York and Switzerland late in the 19th century and became popular throughout Europe, especially within the upper class. The name "bobsledding" supposedly traces back to an early technique that involved riders bobbing their bodies back and forth within the sled to go faster.

What's the strategy when it comes to sledding?

There are more tactics in bobsled than most people would care to know, and most of it takes place in the first few seconds of the event. That's when the crew—composed of a driver, brakeman, and two additional members (in four-man)—go on a mad dash to launch their sled as fast as they can down the track.

It's choreographed chaos where the driver lifts himself or herself into the sled first while sprinting, followed by the two crewmen and finally the brakeman in the back of the sled. In a sport where only one-hundredth of a second separates teams in the standings, everything needs to happen smoothly and quickly. Medals can't be won at the launch, but can certainly be lost.

Once every member of the sled is inside it, gravity does the rest of the work as the sled careens down icy curves and straightaways. The driver has a pair of rings to "steer" with, although at 80-plus miles per hour there isn't a whole lot of maneuvering that can be done. Everyone else in the sled assumes a crash landing sort of position with their heads down to decrease wind resistance and increase the sled's aerodynamics.

How often do bobsleds crash?

For a projectile traveling above freeway speeds and barreling down a course made of ice, crashes aren't as frequent as you might expect. But when they happen, much like in racing, they happen in spectacular fashion. 

Is every sled the same?

There's not a whole lot of variation when it comes to the modern bobsled. Most are made with a combination of steel and fiberglass or carbon fiber. But the most important component of the bobsled is its weight. The heavier the sled, the faster it'll rumble down the course. A four-person bobsled with its crew can legally weigh up to 630 kilograms (about 1,389 pounds). A two-man sled can weigh up to 390 kilograms (about 860 pounds) while a women's sled can weigh up to 325 kilograms (about 717 pounds).

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At its peak velocity, a four-man bobsled can eclipse 90 mph. The g-forces felt inside the bobsled are supposedly comparable to those experienced in a fighter jet.

How are the medal winners decided?

Speed is the name of the game. Each crew will get four runs down the course and their times will be added up. The team with the fastest aggregate time wins the gold medal.

Given that there's only one course and each team replicates the same launch strategy, the tiniest imperfections split teams in the standings. The U.S. four-man bobsled, for example, edged Germany by only 0.38 seconds (or in other words, the U.S. beat Germany by less than 0.1 seconds in each of the four runs) in 2010 to win its first gold medal in bobsled since 1948.

How do countries and athletes qualify?

Up to 170 bobsledders will compete in PyeongChang and every spot will be filled based on the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation Ranking List, which will be finalized Jan. 14, 2018. Rankings are based on performance in IBSF's World Cup, Europe Cup and North American Cup competitions.

Athletes need to have been ranked in at least five different races on three different courses between October 2016 and January 14, 2018, according to the IBSF. Pilots must be ranked in the top 50 for two-man and four-man bobsleds, while female pilots must rank in the top 40. Countries are permitted to send up to three crews, with host country South Korea automatically allowed to send at least one crew.

An in-depth look at the official qualification process can be found here.

Who are the favorites?

In terms of the official favorites, those won't be determined until the final rankings are published in January. If the current rankings are any indication, the best bet on any U.S. bobsledders will be in the women's event. Jamie Greubel Poser and Elana Meyers Taylor rank second and third, respectively, in IBSF's women's bobsled rankings. Greubel Poser claimed a bronze medal in Sochi while Meyers Taylor landed a silver medal with her crew. Meyers Taylor also earned a bronze medal in the 2010 Whistler games.

In terms of historic success, the safe bets are on U.S., German and Swiss crews. According to Wikipedia, Switzerland owns the most bobsled medals (31), followed by the United States (24), and Germany (21).

In the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia won (and was later disqualified as part of a doping investigation) the four-man event, while Latvia and the U.S. claimed silver and bronze medals, respectively. Russia also won (and was later disqualified from) the two-man event, followed by Switzerland and the U.S. Canada claimed gold in the women's event while two different U.S. crews claimed the silver and bronze medals.

 

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