What Is the Winter Sport of Skeleton & How Fast Do They Go?

By Andrea Cespedes

The winter sport of skeleton involves racing down a curvy ice track on a small metal sled, head-first, at speeds of up to 80 mph. Although it's been around for more than 100 years, it only returned to the Olympics in 2002 after a 54-year hiatus. The Olympics features both an individual men's and women's event.

Historical Perspective

Skeleton gets its name from the original design of the metal sleds, which resembled an actual skeleton. The sport officially originated in Switzerland in 1892 and was first instituted as an Olympic sport in 1926. At the 1928 Olympics, an American named Jennison Heaton won the first Olympic gold medal in the sport. Skeleton was immediately suspended from the games only to reappear in the 1948 Olympics, after which is was again removed from the roster of winter events. Although numerous international skeleton competitions continued to be held during its Olympics' hiatus, it had trouble gaining ground as a notable and popular sport. The reinstatement of men's skeleton, and introduction of women's skeleton, at the Salt Lake City winter games in 2002, has helped grow participation.

Equipment and Racing

A skeleton sled consists of two runners and a steel-constructed frame. Men's sleds maximum weight is 43 kilograms, or 19.5 pounds, and women's sleds maximum weight is 35 kilograms, or about 16 pounds. The sleds have bumpers along the sides to protect the athlete from the sloped walls of the track, but have no brakes. Skeleton athletes begin with a running start behind the sled, pushing it by holding onto its handles. They then mount, face first, with their chin just inches from the icy track, and lay in a stiff prone position for the entire ride. An athlete steers by making small adjustments to the position of his body on the sled. Skeleton racers must wear a helmet and usually don a fitted suit for aerodynamics. It takes less than a minute to travel down the curves of the track; athletes usually perform four runs total and the winner is separated by hundredths of a second.

Speeds and Risks

When you're sliding down a track at speeds between 70 and 85 mph, crashes happen. It's an accepted part of the sport and in most cases causes no harm, but some crashes can result in serious injury and death. Notable was the death of a Latvian skeleton athlete in 2001 when his sled crashed into another sled at only 36 mph. Skeleton is considered less risky than luge, though. This other sledding sport has athletes ride a sled on their back so they must occasionally raise their head to see where they're going. This raises the G-forces and, as they travel at speeds greater than 98 mph, increases the risk of crash and injury. The skeleton track used during Olympic games is the same as the one used for bobsledding competitions as both require a running start; luge is often contested on the same track as well.

Notable Skeleton Athletes

In addition to winning a gold medal at the first ever Olympics skeleton event and at its brief return in 1948, the United States also took home gold (Tristan Gale) and silver (Lea Ann Parsley) at the inaugural women's event in 2002. Jimmy Shea repeated the United States' earlier gold wins in the men's event at these games, too. In the 2014 games, American Matt Antoine received a bronze for his skeleton efforts while American Noelle Pikus-Pace earned silver in the women's division. Great Britain, Canada, Russia, Latvia and Switzerland also have a history of doing well in the sport. Russian Alexander Tretiakov won gold in impressive fashion at Sochi in 2014, setting a record time in three of his four runs down the track. Elizabeth Yarnold of Great Britain claimed gold in Sochi in the women's event.


About the Author

Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.

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