The slippery science of the skeleton

Many Winter Olympic sports have ancient origins , dating back to when humans invented new ways to get around in the wild and white wilde...


Many Winter Olympic sports have ancient origins, dating back to when humans invented new ways to get around in the wild and white wilderness. Skiing may have appeared 10,000 years ago in Altai, Chinaand the indigenous Sami word for ski (“cuoigat”) is estimated to be between 6,000 and 8,000 years old. Thousands of years ago in northern Europe, people attached animal bones at their feet to skate on the ice. And the First Peoples of Canada used toboggans to transport goods.

The sport called skeleton has no such sacred origin in the practical transport of human beings or goods, although it is technically played on a sled. Life was hard enough without central heating; there was no reason to rush face down down a frozen slide on an unbraked sled.

Yet for all the modernity of the skeleton – it was only reintroduced into the Winter Olympics schedule in 2002 – scientists are still deeply perplexed by it.

Other board sports offer clearer paths to victory. Bobsled drivers steer by pulling on two pieces of rope attached to a steering bolt. Sleds steer by flexing their calf muscles and gripping the handles of the sled. But skeleton racers can guide themselves with only the most subtle of shrugs or taps of the feet. The slightest jolt can help or hurt by altering an athlete’s aerodynamics in ways that athletes, coaches and researchers are still trying to decipher.

“There are even times when I only use my eyes,” said Katie Tannenbaum, a skeleton athlete from the Virgin Islands. told The Times in 2018.

The skeleton was invented on a whim, according to the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation. The sport began in the late 19th century on the Cresta Run, an icy outdoor track used for tobogganing in St. Moritz, Switzerland, when recreational lugers began descending headfirst. And although the name “skeleton” corresponds to a sport that would seem to invite death head-on, it has murky origins; it may come from a badly anglicized Norwegian word or from the sparse, skeletal appearance of the steel sled. The sport appeared at the Olympic Games in 1928 and 1948when the games were held in St. Moritz.

The physics of sliding sports — skeleton, bobsleigh and luge — are simple. “It’s gravity that pulls you down the track,” said Timothy Wei, a mechanical engineer specializing in fluid dynamics at Northwestern University who works with skeleton athletes. “And all the drag forces slow you down.”

Much of the sparse non-proprietary research on the skeleton concerns the sprint phase of the sport, where athletes run to generate speed while pushing their sled a short distance before jumping aboard. Scientists have studied the ideal number of stepsthe ideal step length and frequency and even the ideal angles hips, knees, ankles and thighs during the running phase. But scientists know far less about the mechanics of the skeleton’s most terrifying phase.

There are several reasons.

The slip is physically rough: Athletes endure four to five G-forces of pressure in the turns and must withstand vibrations from the track. In luge, athletes wear a neck brace to support their head under high G-forces; the bobsledders, seated, are surrounded by their vehicle. In skeleton, athletes experience the elements head-to-head, while lowering their heads to stay streamlined, their chins hovering inches above the hard ice and their eyes straining upwards to view the track.

“You can’t do more than two to three runs a day,” Dr. Wei said. “And at the end of the season, for a month or two, you just can’t think straight.” So while a runner can train to run whenever they want, a skeleton athlete can only train for a few cumulative hours per year, if that; with few opportunities for testing, skeletons are logistically difficult to study.

It’s not easy to get to a track to train. The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation lists only 17 tracks in the world, all located in the northern hemisphere. This exclusivity creates economic and environmental barriers for sliders from other countries hoping to train, let alone make it to the Olympics.

And the tracks are often twisty, winding like a rollercoaster, making it difficult to keep a continuous eye on an athlete as they race down the track. The track at the Yanqing National Sliding Center in Beijing, also called “the snow dragon”, has a 360 degree turn. In Dr. Wei’s experience, watching a race means “you just watch these guys sprint and disappear down a tunnel and they’re gone.” He added, “There’s no way to know exactly what the athlete is doing all the way down the track and get data from that.”

But in a race where margins of victory are typically a few hundredths of a second, it’s crucial for athletes to understand the aerodynamic forces that are slowing their slide, in order to minimize them. With your face pointing at the ice, it can be hard to tell if changing your foot position or sliding up or down on the sled is actually saving you valuable time.

Enter the humble wind tunnel. More than ten years ago, Dr. Wei built a system that simulated drag resistance athletes experience in a real skeleton race. He built a fictional section of a track at the exit of an open wind tunnel with sensors embedded in the ground, near which he mounted a fake sled. The sensors tracked the drag forces and weight distribution of the athletes.

Athletes rode a mock sled, braced themselves against gusty winds and were able to see in real time how slight adjustments to their bodies affected their speed through a plexiglass window in the tunnel floor.

Dr. Wei also performed tests using a theatrical fog machine and illuminated with a green sheet of laser light. It tracked the movement of fog particles to reveal how air swirled over athletes’ bodies and heads, hoping to better understand other ways to reduce drag.

Ms Tannenbaum, who is due to compete for the Virgin Islands this week, has been working with Dr Wei’s wind tunnel to prepare for Beijing. (There are no bobsleigh tracks in the US Virgin Islands.) “Where does the drag come from?” Dr. Wei wondered. “How much is from the sled itself, and how much is from Katie?”

A wind tunnel cannot replicate the surprises of a real track, where certain elements – small bumps in the ice, wind conditions, outside temperature – will always be out of the athlete’s control.

Perhaps part of the beauty of skeleton, compared to other sliding sports, is that it requires athletes to surrender complete control of their destiny on the ice.

“Even though it sounds completely crazy, in many ways it’s ironically the safest of board sports because you have so little directional control,” Dr. Wei said. Oversteer in these sports can often lead to an accident. Luge, where speeds can exceed 90 miles per hour, is considered one of the most dangerous sports in the Olympics.

The most aerodynamic skeleton runner would not be a fleshy human, but a real skeleton – the wind would whistle through the ribcage, Dr Wei said, adding that a real skeleton would not be able to steer.

Until the opening of the Olympic Games to the living dead, the sport of skeleton remained the domain of the living. And though athletes may seem as still as corpses, there’s nothing more steadfastly alive than clinging to a plank of steel, gliding at 80 miles an hour toward the center of the Earth, again and again and again.

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