Fans of the film Cool Runnings will have enjoyed the recent renaissance of the Jamaican bobsleigh team. One of the differences between the film and the real story is that the athletes who competed in Calgary were not elite sprinters who had missed out on a place at the Summer Olympics, but rather sprinters from the army. However, if you look through the bobsleigh squads across the nations, you will find many athletes with a background in sprinting, some of whom have reached the highest level in Track and Field. The current British squad features Joel Fearon, who ran in the 4x100m relay at the Athletics World Championships in Moscow and Craig Pickering who competed in the Beijing Olympics. So why are there such strong links between sprinting and bobsleigh?
There are a number of rules relating to the design of the sleigh and other equipment used, but the rules of the competition are incredibly simple. Each crew has up to 50 metres in which they are able to push their sleigh before boarding with the overall aim of getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. Race results are calculated as the aggregate time over two runs, so speed and consistency are required. Teams of 2 or 4 people make up each crew.
To achieve the fastest time possible, there are two essential factors which any crew will need. Firstly, they will need a good start, and secondly they will need to plot the smoothest and quickest path down to the finish line.
In terms of the path to the finish line, the role of the driver is essential. Whilst it may look like the sleigh’s path is dictated solely by the design of the track, the pilot’s steering is actually essential to keep the sleigh on course. The pilot steers via two rings which are attached to the front runners of the sleigh via a pulley system. Adjustments made must be very subtle – bigger adjustments can cause the sleigh to veer off course.
Fans of motorsport will know that no matter how skilled a driver/pilot is, there is a limit as to how fast any corner can be taken, and the same is true in bobsleigh. The person at the back of the sleigh is known as the brakeman, and their job is to apply the brakes when necessary. The pilot and brakeman make up the two-man crew, and many pilots and brakemen will also compete in four-man crews, where they will be joined by two pushers. The role of the pusher is to help accelerate the sleigh at the start, and then once in the sleigh get as low as possible to create as little drag as possible.
Once the crew are inside the sleigh, the only force accelerating the sleigh will be gravity. Therefore whilst the skill of the pilot and brakeman will determine the speeds that can be achieved, the other area where you can gain a competitive advantage is the only time the crew can actively accelerate the sleigh – i.e. the first 50 metres before the sleigh must be boarded. It is estimated that saving one tenth of a second at the start will be translated into one-third of a second advantage at the finish, all other factors being equal. Accelerating a sleigh over 50 metres requires a combination of speed and power, and therefore is something that sprinters are ideally suited to. Many pushers and brakemen will have a background in athletics and particularly sprint disciplines. The pilot is a more specialist role, but will still have an important role in maximising the start, so therefore it is important that the pilot trains like a sprinter too.
Whilst the two sports appear drastically different, the skills of sprinters in athletics are ideally suited to bobsleigh, and it is likely that there will be many more athletes who make the cross-over between the two sports.