Monobob and its impact on female bobsledding
On Sunday, a new sled was zipping down the Yanqing Sliding Centre. It looks very similar to the two-man bobsled that has been sliding down Olympic tracks for nearly a century, but this time, there will be just one person in it.
It's the monobob, which debuted at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. In its second season as an International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) discipline, the women-only event will make its Olympic debut.
That means that some of the biggest names in women's bobsledding — the US' Kaillie Humphries and Elana Meyers Taylor, Canada's Cynthia Appiah and Germany's Laura Nolte and Mariama Jamanka — will have another opportunity to win a medal at the Olympic Games.
"It's a dual burden, but it's clearly a second chance to get a medal," Nolte told DW. "It's really cool that women have a second event."
What is the monobob?
The one-seater sled is a very similar size to the two-person one, but, because it's only pushed by one person, it doesn't have a handle that pops up from the nose. Drivers have to push the sled from behind before sliding forward into their seat.
"Monobob in general is just a whole new animal," Meyers Taylor, who won the 2021-22 Women's Monobob Series, told DW. "I feel like I'm still trying to get the hang of it."
Because there is only one person in the sled, monobob handles very differently to two-person and four-person sleds. Because there is only one person, Humphries told DW, the point of balance is in the middle, and, without weight on the back axis, monobobs slide and fishtail around the track much more easily.
"It's kind of like driving a little tiny sports car versus a bigger truck," the two-time gold medalist said. "It feels and reacts very differently so you just need to be aware and work on the switching from one event to the other within a day."
Though there is more sliding around, that doesn't mean there are more accidents than other bobsled events. Monobobs are easier to turn, Humphries said, which makes it easier to recover from a mistake.
"But, if you do it at the wrong time, it does start to really skid and it's very, very hard to get it back under control," Humphries said.
Unlike other bobsled disciplines, all monobob competitors are competing on pretty much the same sled. They all must weigh at least 162 kilograms (357 pounds) without the driver and no more than 247 kilograms (545 pounds) with the driver. That has not only leveled the playing field, Meyers Taylor said, but has allowed more countries to participate.
"It's game-changing. You also see a lot more nations participating in bobsled now, and that's really what we want," she said. "We want to grow the sport as much as possible. It's a really cool event."
Good for women's bobsledding?
It may not be the event women in bobsledding were hoping for, though. The IOC has hyped monobob as an event that will "increase female participation in Olympic bobsleigh," noting that the women now have the same amount of medal events as the men.
Though that may be true, the genders remain far from equal. Most of the women competing in the monobob are also competing as drivers in the two-woman event, so the "increase" is not as big as the IOC is touting it to be. Additionally, just looking at the math, more men are required to fill two-man and four-man bobsleds than the monobob and two-woman bobsled.
"I would have liked to see four-man just to be more inclusive of all women. It doubles the numbers," Humphries said.
The Canadian-American, who has often called bobsledding a male-dominated sport, pointed to the fact that the Olympics will see 120 men and just 46 women compete in bobsledding in Beijing.
"What I hope to see in the future, is that men and women do monobob, two-man and four-man and that all three events are available to every gender at the Olympics."
Humphries and Meyers Taylor have both made history in the bobsled. The two became the first women to compete with and against men in a mixed bobsled competition in 2014 — Meyers Taylor drove with her husband Nic Taylor as the brakeman. Humphries also piloted the first all-woman four-person bobsled in a World Cup competition in 2016.
Meyers Taylor would have also liked to compete in a four-woman event, recognizing that is the discipline everyone wants to see.
"Driving a four-man is one of the coolest events ever and it's the biggest event in our sport," she said. "Everybody jumping into this little sled — it's exciting, it's fast, it's furious. It's one of the highlight events of the games."
The American did admit that monobob does progress the sport forward and has received appreciation from her male colleagues.
"The guys are watching us and being like: 'Oh my god — that thing is out of control,'" she said. "And they have much more appreciation, especially as the competitions are getting better and better."
Humphries also acknowledges that monobob has progressed women in the sport, but still believes that it falls short of what is required.
"This is a step in the right direction, but I think there is still more to be done," she said.
Edited by: Michael Da Silva