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Culture

Speeding Skeleton on Ice

Skeleton racing? There couldn’t be a spookier name for a sport. But this isn’t about skulls and dangling limbs, rather it’s a winter sport for daredevils –an extreme form of tobogganing.

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Look, no hands!

With noses practically touching the ice, athletes lie headfirst on a small sled and speed down an icy track at a hundred kilometers an hour.

Though skeleton racing has long been overshadowed by bob sledding and luging, that will soon change. For the first time, skeleton athletes will race on the bob sled track at the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Germans are pinning high hopes on their team after an outstanding performance at the championships in Königssee in the southern German state of Bavaria.

Steffi Hanzlik from Steinbach-Hallenberg, Skeleton World Champion 2002, won in one minute and 43,20 seconds, creating a world record. Swiss Gregor Stähli was the fastest among the men, clocking one minute and 40,50 seconds. The points they scored in the world cup races are crucial for their rankings in the Winter Olympics.

Extensive gear and a daring attitude

Of course skeleton isn’t the easiest of sports. Expensive equipment, special clothing and nerves of steel are definite must-haves. A tight fitting body suit made of an elastic fiber, boots with spikes similar to those worn by track and field athletes and a safety helmet with a chin guard to prevent injury – and you’re dressed for the nerve-wracking action.

Steff Hanzlik

Germany's Steffi Hanzlik brakes as she crosses the finish line Thursday, Dec. 20, 2001, during the World Cup Skeleton women's competition in Lake Placid, N.Y.

A single athlete rides a thin, steel sled that is steered by shifting weight or lightly dragging a toe. The competitor holds onto the sled while taking a running start on spiked shoes. The athlete then boards the sled face-down with the chin nearly scraping the ice. The athlete with the fastest time takes the gold.

The sled is an aerodynamic steel machine mounted on a pair of highly polished steel runners. It has no steering mechanism. Athletes shift the weight of their shoulders and sometimes lightly touch their feet to the track to help guide or steer the sled. The handles are used to push the sled at the start of the race.

The FES: power house of designs and techniques

The complicated technicalities of the sled mean a lot of work for the FES, Germany’s sports equipment research institute. This is where Olympic victories are conceived as engineers develop everything from racing bikes to bobsleds to racing skates.

Though wind tunnel tests were finished in the summer, the weather played spoilt-sport. This year’s warm and sunny autumn interfered with the time plan of the engineers, who design and build the special runners and test run them themselves. Practice runs on the ice track were limited and it was difficult to gauge the effects that the much colder temperatures in Salt Lake city would have on the runners.

Sophisticated technology

The hollow runners on which the sled is mounted contain tiny measuring sensors, which record important data for the engineers. The devices are made up of microcomputers complete with sensors and processors.

Harald Schaale, FES Director says; "These are all unique instruments with very specialized applications. They make the interaction between user and material more transparent".

The equipment is all about collecting as much information as possible from the track about how the sled behaves during a run. Countless runs with countless different blade configurations in the runner are needed to get it right.

But more important than any measurement is the athlete’s judgement. But they talk only to the engineers, they don’t want to let the competition know any details.

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