All aboard! Bobsledders pile in and careen toward gold

Alexander Bushroe
Bobsleigh was included in the first rendition of the Winter Olympics in France in 1924 as a four-man event.
Alexander Bushroe

Of all the 15 sports included in this year's Beijing Winter Olympics, the final event to enter the spotlight finally began today. The sport, known as either bobsled or bobsleigh, consists of riders, known as bobsledders, hopping into a sleigh, a non-motorized vehicle built for between one and four passengers, and hurtling down an icy, tube-shaped track.

The sport, along with its two closely related cousins, luge and skeleton, will take place at the Xiaohaituo Bobsleigh and Luge Track, also known as the Yanqing National Sliding Center, in Yanqing District of Beijing. The course includes 16 turns over a 1,975-meter span and features a total vertical descent from the course's starting line to its terminus of 121 meters.

Bobsleigh's origin story parallels that of luge and skeleton as well. In St Moritz, Switzerland, in the late 19th century, visitors to the winter resort town loved to slide down the town's streets and avenues at blistering speeds. These shenanigans were eventually transformed into a regulated activity engaged in on a maintained track surface.

Eventually, bobsleigh was included in the first rendition of the Winter Olympics in France in 1924 as a four-man event with the fastest team to complete the course deemed the winner.

At the 1928 Games, the sport returned to St Moritz, then at the 1932 Games at Lake Placid, USA, the two-man bobsled event was introduced as well.

With the exception of the 1960 Games in Squaw Valley, California, USA, the event has been a part of each Winter Games. That year, the Games organizing committee declined to construct a bobsleigh-appropriate track due to financial concerns. The sport returned in 1964.

Bobsleigh was a single-gender event at the Winter Games up until the 2002 competition, when the women's two-person bobsled was included as part of the festivities. Brand new at this year's Games in Beijing is the women's monobob, a female-only event involving contestants riding solo in a smaller sleigh.

This year's Games are the most gender-inclusive yet, and events like the monobob have been specifically designed for women to compete to provide equal opportunity for Olympians of either gender.

Bobsleigh racing formats follow the same model as skeleton and luge, consisting of four heats, and the combined time of each of an individual's or team's run serves as that squad's official time. No redos are permitted in case of error, so riders must ensure that they are prepared at all times and avoid a crucial mistake that could sabotage their chance at a medal.

All aboard! Bobsledders pile in and careen toward gold

China's Huai Mingming in women's monobob event at Beijing 2022. After two heats, Huai stands 6th in the rankings.

The first two runs in the women's monobob kicked off the bobsleigh competitions today. Heats 3 and 4 will take place tomorrow, following which the winners will receive their prizes. The remaining disciplines under the bobsledding umbrella – four-man, two-man and two-woman – will continue through the 20th of this month, the final day of the Beijing Games.

Similar to luge, Germany has historically been the most successful nation in the sport, taking home 19 of the 49 gold medals issued in the event's history, followed by Switzerland's 10.

However, unquestionably the most memorable and notorious bobsled team in the event never qualified for a medal at all, nor did they come particularly close. The story, though, of the national bobsleigh team of the tiny, tropical nation of Jamaica in 1988 will be remembered by many for years to come.

Jamaica is a small island nation located in the Caribbean Sea. Its climate varies very little year-round with daytime temperatures during the winter months still averaging north of 27 degrees Celsius; far from the ideal temperature for winter sports. Regardless, the attache at Jamaica's US embassy in 1987 opined that since Jamaica has great athletes – undeniably true; their successes in the Summer Olympics are multitudinous, highlighted of course by world-record sprinter Usain Bolt – they should be able to excel in any sport, regardless of the venue.

So the country's Olympic Association put together a team to compete in the bobsleigh events at the Games in Calgary, Canada, in 1988.

The team lacked much of the basic experience of the other nation's competitors and even, due to a lack of their own resources, borrowed equipment from other squads. This, however, engendered goodwill from their competition as well as the audience for their positivity, camaraderie with other sledders, and their status as dark horses or underdogs.

A fairy-tale ending was not to be, as the team crashed during their third run after losing control of the sleigh and were unable to finish the event. Their story, however, was the basic premise behind the 1993 Hollywood movie "Cool Runnings," which was loosely based on the team from Jamaica at the 1988 Games.

Undeterred, the team returned for the Winter Games in 1992, 1994, 1998 and 2002. After a 12-year hiatus, they reemerged at the Sochi 2014 Games, and their women's team traveled to South Korea in 2018, they're back in Beijing for this year's races, competing in the two-man, four-man and the first-ever women's solo events. If you love a good underdog story, tune in to see if the Jamaican team can beat the odds and take home their first medal.

Hop in, the sled's leaving the station!

All aboard! Bobsledders pile in and careen toward gold

Jamaica is back in Beijing for this year's races, competing in the two-man, four-man and the first-ever women's solo events.

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