Many winter Olympic sports have ancient origins, dating back to when humans invented new ways to get around in the harsh, white wilderness. Skiing originated perhaps 10,000 years ago in Altay, China, and the native Sámi word for skiing (“čuoigat”) is estimated to be 6,000 to 8,000 years old. Thousands of years ago, people in Northern Europe tied animal bones to their feet to skate on ice. And the First Peoples in Canada used sleds to transport goods.
The sport called skeleton has no such sacred origin in the practical transportation of people or goods, despite it technically taking place on a sled. Life was hard enough without central heating; there was no reason to throw a frozen parachute face down on a brakeless sled.
But despite the skeleton’s modernity—it wasn’t reintroduced into the Winter Olympics lineup until 2002—scientists are still deeply confused by it.
The other sliding sports offer clearer paths to victory. Bobsleigh drivers steer by pulling on two lengths of rope attached to a handlebar bolt. Lugers steer by flexing their calf muscles and gripping the handles of the sled. But skeleton racers can lead themselves with just the subtlest shrugs or foot taps. The tiniest vibration can help or hurt by altering athlete’s aerodynamics in ways that athletes, coaches and researchers are still trying to decipher.
“There are even times when I just use my eyes,” Katie Tannenbaum, a Virgin Islands skeletal athlete, told The Times in 2018.
Skeleton was invented on a whim, according to the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation. The sport began in the late 1800s on the Cresta Run, an icy outdoor track used for sledding in St. Moritz, Switzerland, when recreational sledders came down with their heads. And while the name “skeleton” fits a sport that seems to directly invite death, it has obscure origins; it may have sprung from a poorly Anglicized Norwegian word or the sparse, skeletal appearance of the steel sled. The sport appeared at the Olympics in 1928 and 1948, when the games were held in St. Moritz.
The physics of the sliding sports – skeleton, bobsleigh and luge – is simple. “It’s gravity that pulls you down,” said Timothy Wei, a mechanical engineer with expertise in fluid dynamics at Northwestern University who works with skeletal athletes. “And all the forces of resistance slow you down.”
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Much of the sparse, unpatented research on the skeletal system concerns the sprint phase of the sport, in which athletes run to generate speed as they push their sled a short distance before jumping aboard. Scientists have been researching the ideal number of steps, the ideal stride length and frequency, and even the ideal angles of the hips, knees, ankles and thighs during the gait phase. But scientists know much less about the mechanics of the more terrifying phase of the skeleton.
There are many reasons.
The sliding is physically brutal: athletes undergo four to five G-forces in turns and must be able to withstand the rattling vibrations of the track. When sledding, athletes wear a neck strap to hold their heads up under high G-forces; bobsled athletes, seated, are wrapped in their vehicle. In Skeleton, athletes experience the elements with their faces forward, poking their heads down to stay streamlined, chin hovering just inches above the hard ice and eyes squinting upward to visualize the track.
“You can’t do more than two to three runs a day,” said Dr. Whey. “And by the end of the season, you can’t think clearly for a month or two.” So while a runner can practice running whenever he wants, a skeletal athlete can only skeletonize a few cumulative hours a year, if so; with few opportunities to test, skeleton runs are logistically difficult to study.
It’s not easy to get on a track to practice. The International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation lists only 17 tracks worldwide, all located in the Northern Hemisphere. This exclusivity creates economic and environmental barriers for sliders from other countries hoping to train, let alone make it to the Olympics.
And the tracks are often tortuous, twisting like roller coasters, making it difficult to keep a continuous eye on an athlete as they hurtle down the track. The track at the Yanqing National Sliding Center in Beijing, also known as ‘the snow dragon’, has a 360-degree turn. From the experience of Dr. Wei means watching a race: “you just see these guys sprinting and disappearing into a tunnel and they’re gone.” He added: “There is no way to know exactly what the athlete is doing on the whole track and get data from it.”
February 10, 2022, 6:48 PM ET
But in a race where victory margins are typically a few hundredths of a second, it’s critical for athletes to understand the aerodynamic forces that slow down their slide, in order to minimize them. With your face facing the ice, it can be difficult to know whether adjusting the position of your foot or sliding up or down on the sled will actually save valuable time.
Enter the modest wind tunnel. More than ten years ago, Dr. Wei developed a system that simulated the resistance athletes experience during a real skeleton run. He constructed a simulated section of a track at the exit of an open wind tunnel with sensors in the floor, where he mounted a counterfeit sled. The sensors tracked the resistance forces and weight distribution of the athletes.
Athletes climbed on a fake sled, braced themselves against the wind gusts and could see in real time how small adjustments of their bodies affected their speed through a plexiglass window on the floor of the tunnel.
dr. Wei also conducted tests using a theatrical fog machine and illuminated by a green sheet of laser light. He tracked the movement of the fog particles to reveal how air whirled over the athletes’ bodies and heads, hoping to gain insight into further ways to reduce drag.
Ms. Tannenbaum, who will compete this week for the Virgin Islands, worked with Dr. Wei to prepare for Beijing. (There are no bobsleigh tracks in the US Virgin Islands.) “Where does the resistance come from?” asked Dr. Get away. “How much is from the sled itself and how much is from Katie?”
A wind tunnel cannot mimic the surprises of a real track, where certain elements – the little bumps on the ice, the wind conditions, the outside temperature – will always be out of the athlete’s control.
Part of the beauty of the skeleton, compared to the other sliding sports, may be that it prompts athletes to relinquish total control of their fate on the ice.
“Although it looks completely insane, paradoxically it is in many ways the safest of the sliding sports because you have so little control over the handlebars,” said Dr. Whey. Oversteer in these sports can often lead to a crash. Luge, where speeds can reach 90 miles per hour, is considered one of the most dangerous sports in the Olympics.
The most aerodynamic skeletal racer wouldn’t be a fleshy human, but a real skeleton — the wind would whistle right through the ribcage, said Dr. Wei, adding that a real skeleton wouldn’t be able to steer.
Until the Olympics open to the undead, skeletal sports will remain in the realm of the living. And while the athletes may look as still as corpses, there’s nothing as determined as clinging to a steel plank and sliding 80 miles per hour toward the center of the Earth, over and over.