Skeleton, in which athletes descend face-first down an ice track in a specially-created sled, is one of the highlights of any Olympic Winter Games – and relies as much on state-of-the-art technology as it does on the remarkable bravery of the athletes taking part.
The relationship between athlete, sled and track is crucial. Shelley Rudman, a silver medalist for Great Britain at Turin 2006 and a competitor in Sochi this year, explains the importance of aerodynamics.
“For us it’s everything – the air flow going over your body, and your body shape can be a huge factor as well,” she says.
“Our sport is so similar to Formula One. We test and we test and we test; you’re in wind tunnels testing the equipment so that it is perfect for race day.”
Each sled has two steel runners, with cut-in knives on the bottom half of each. These can be used to dig into the ice, like a rudder, and turn the sled from side to side. As the athletes take corners at scintillating speed, seemingly at the sled’s mercy, they are in fact performing four or five different turns each time.
An explosive start is crucial in skeleton. Athletes sprint for 30 metres with their sled before propelling themselves headlong into position. From then on, they will reach speeds of up to 80 or 90 miles per hour as they seek a potentially a gold medal-winning run.
“You have to be a certain personality type to begin with; you have to almost have nerves of steel, because once you go there’s no stopping you,” laughs Rudman. But don’t be fooled – despite its spectacular appearance, skeleton is as technical and intricate a sport as any that will be enjoyed at Sochi 2014.