When international visitors attend the Vancouver Winter Olympics, there may be the odd tenant of warmer climes that needs a briefing in the fundamentals of ice hockey or curling, but for most Canadians, winter sports are part of their upbringing, as well as a part of their sense of nationhood. There are, however, some sports that may only appear on TV every four years, some sports that may have only recently been accepted into the Olympics, and some other athletic curiosities that may cry out for an explanation.
Hurtling Down Hills
Luge, bobsleigh, and skeleton all originated in the Swiss spa town of St. Moritz. A hotel entrepreneur, Caspar Badrutt, encouraged Europeans to take in the brisk Alpine air in order to foster better health and stamina. Given that toboggans had always been part of the town’s daily life ( delivery boys made frequent use of them ), it didn’t take long for hotel patrons to discover the joy of the death-defying downhill slide. The original skeleton sled ( circa 1892 ) got its name because its wooden construction resembled a human skeleton. The bobsleigh got its start as a multiple passenger version of the skeleton. Badrutt, confronted with a slew of pedestrian accidents and potential lawsuits, ended up building the world’s first “half-pipe” track in 1870, which is still in use today and has been featured twice in Olympic competition.
Skeleton and luge sleds are not permitted to have any steering or braking mechanisms – not necessarily a comforting feature when one considers that riders can experience up to 5 G’s of force en route to the bottom of the track ( certainly enough to pull your cheeks back to comic effect! ) A bobsleigh does have a steering mechanism and can reach speeds of up to 201 km/hr. Bobsleigh has been around since the first Winter Games in 1924 whereas Skeleton made a very recent debut at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. The key difference between a skeleton and a luge is simply a matter of what body part rockets down the slope first: luge involes a legs first / belly up slide whereas skeleton has a face-first/butt up slide. Often the same track ( Blackcomb Mountain in the case of the Vancouver Olympics ) is used for all three events.
Skiing and shooting?
Biathlon ( cross-country skiing combined with target shooting ) makes more sense when one considers its origins as a drilling exercise for Norwegian soldiers. The sport was originally called “military patrol” and actually has a summer weather version in which athletes run with a rifle rather than ski with one. There are up to four shooting ranges interspersed throughout a cross-country trek with half the targets shot at in the prone position while the other half are shot at while standing. A missed target carries a penalty of one minute added to the competitor’s time or a mandatory trip around the 150 m. “penalty loop.” Athletes carry their ammo on their belts and a .22LR rimfire cartridge has been the standard since 1978. This is a sport where great aim can be just as important as great conditioning.
The experts agree that the invention of snowboarding was the brainchild of bored, off-season skateboarders, but the identity of the sport’s actual inventor is highly disputed. Some of the first boards were apparently improvised from cafeteria trays! Inventor Sherman Poppen developed a toy called the “Snurfer” in 1965 – it was basically a wheel-less skateboard with a rope attachment for steering. The first “Snurfer” competition was held in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1979, and the sport made its Olympic debut at the Nagano Games in 1999.
What was once a heated skier/snowboarder feud – which involves issues of youth, values, lingo, and everything else -has apparently died down in recent years and now over 97% of commercial ski areas are offering designated areas for boarding.
Of course, hockey and figure skating will still be the big ticket draws this February during the Olympic games, but one would do well to check out these alternative sports whose unique athletes are instantly recognizable by their boards, guns, and skeletons.