Feel the rhythm and become a bobsleigh instant expert

Everything you need to know about the intense Olympic sport

Feel the rhythm and become a bobsleigh instant expert
Kaillie Humphries, front, already earned her fourth overall World Cup title in 2018 and is now aiming for her third consecutive Olympic gold. © Matthias Hangst/Getty Images For IBSF

​By Benjamin Blum, CBC Sports

The 2018 Winter Games mark the 30th anniversary of the fabled Jamaican bobsleigh team's Olympic debut, and their story is still among the first things people think of when the sport is discussed.

Disney movies aside, there's no denying the team brought additional attention to a sport that's evolved from a way to entertain wealthy tourists in Switzerland to an intense Olympic event that simultaneously demands brute strength, split-second timing and acute attention to detail.

Here's everything you need to know to instantly become a bobsleigh expert:

History and format

  • Developed in St. Moritz in the 1880s
  • Four-man contested at first Olympics in 1924, two-man introduced in 1932
  • Women's two-man incorporated at 2002 Games

How the events work

  • All events consist of four runs over two days
  • Only the top 20 sleds advance to fourth round in men's four-man and two-man
  • Lowest total time wins

Starting off strong

Even though it lasts only five seconds, there are a lot of variables at play during the start that can impact a team's medal chances. Just ask two-time Olympic champion Heather Moyse, who was Kaillie Humphries's brakeman at the 2010 and 2014 Games.

"You could literally run two stride lengths too short or you could run two stride lengths too far. And believe me, losing that one hundredth of a second does cost you," Moyse wrote in a first-person essay for CBC Sports last year.

Both Humphries and Moyse will be back at the Olympics, but not in the same sled. More on that later.

What about the four-man event? It's still the same 50-metre stretch off the top — with the grooves for the sled's runners ending 35 metres in — but now it's twice the number of people running in lockstep and eventually vaulting into a moving sled.

Bob and weave

Bobsleigh, luge and skeleton all use the same ice track for competition, with the three sports sharing Swiss origins from the late 19th century.

Unlike luge and skeleton, the sleds in bobsleigh do have steering capabilities — but they're more like reins than a steering wheel. The pilot holds on to two steering pulleys that move the front runners of the sled, allowing the crew to navigate the bends successfully while going down the track.

Safety is a constant concern in bobsleigh; although the athletes wear helmets and are ensconced inside a metal and fibreglass toboggan, the slightest shift could cause the sled to crash and turn over. Successfully piloting a sled requires a strong tactile sense of the track and the ability to think while going upwards of 140 kilometres per hour.

Pushing for the podium

Three-peats are rare in sports, let alone maintaining a level of global competitiveness over nearly a decade, but that's what Humphries is aiming for at the Olympics. She heads to the Games after winning her fourth career overall World Cup title and is expected to be in the podium conversation.

But who's pushing her? Moyse came out of retirement in September but ended up partnering with pilot Alysia Rissling instead of reuniting with her fellow flag-bearer from Sochi. Humphries is competing with Phylicia George as her brakeman, and will face stiff competition from American rivals Elana Meyers Taylor and Jamie Greubel Poser.

Canada's Justin Kripps enters the Olympics as the current World Cup two-man champ and the top Canadian pilot in the four-man. Christopher Spring has also made strides in the two-man, finishing third in the World Cup standings this season. If you're looking for a safe bet as to who will own the podium, though, watch out for the Germans.

Secrets to sounding smart

Still want more bobsleigh info? Here are a few facts that'll fascinate your friends:

  • Multi-sport brakemen. Some of the top brakemen are culled from football (Jesse Lumsden) and rugby teams as well as the track world (Phylicia George). Heather Moyse is a World Rugby hall of famer and a competitive track cyclist.
  • The case of the missing Olympics. The 1960 Games in Squaw Valley, Calif., were the lone Olympics not to feature bobsleigh after the organizing committee chose not to build a track after only nine countries expressed interest in competing.
  • What about Bob? No, the inventor of the sport wasn't named Robert S. Leigh. Bobsleigh got its name from the bobbing motion of early crews rocking back and forth at the start to increase their speed.