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What is a Bobsled?

By O. Wallace
Updated May 17, 2024
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Bobsledding has evolved tremendously since early daredevils negotiated rickety, modified wooden sleds down icy runs in Europe. The mode of this transport is the bobsled, or as it is referred to outside of the US and Canada, the bobsleigh. The sport became popular in the mid 1800s with the first half pipe track built in St. Moritz, Switzerland, by Caspar Badrutt, owner of the Krup Hotel. Early aficionados rigged their own designs using wood delivery sleds and adding steering mechanisms, but it is American Stephen Whitney who is credited with the invention of the modern design, which bolts two sleds into one.

The vehicle got its name from the bobbing action crews made to increase the sled’s speed down the track. As the sport literally got faster, reaching speeds of up to 90 miles per hour (144 km/h), the sleds had to get stronger and more streamlined. It was this modern design that allowed them to reach these higher speeds.

The modern device is typically made with a lightweight metal frame and covered with fiberglass or a composite material, making it very aerodynamic. Original bobsleds seated crews of up to six, but today, they are made for either a two-person crew or four-person crew. The sled sits on steel runners, which are usually a competition regulated 26.3 inches (66.8 cm) long. Inside the bobsled is a steering mechanism made up of a steering pulley, steering axle and steering handle. On the outside, there are retractable push bars in the front and rear, and brakeman’s push bars on the end.

Bobsleds that are used in competition cannot exceed 12.46 feet (3.8 m) in length for a crew of four, and 8.85 feet (2.7 m) for a two man crew. In 1952, a weight limit was set for competition. The maximum allowable weight for both the crew and sled combined is 1,388 pounds (630 kg) for a crew of four men. In men’s bobsledding, the weight limit for a crew of two is 859 pounds (390 kg), and for women, a crew of two cannot exceed 749 pounds (340 kg).

While a bobsled must be lightweight and aerodynamic to navigate the winding, turning runs, it must be strong to withstand the rigors of high speeds and up to 5Gs. It must also hold up in the inevitable high-speed crashes — manmade tracks of artificial ice and concrete can be brutal.

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Discussion Comments
By julies — On Nov 19, 2012
Even though you don't hear or see much about the sport of bobsledding I like to watch them when I get the chance. What kind of training do the athletes have to do to become a good at bobsledding? I'm sure they have to be in good shape and really watch their weight, but what else do they need to do to keep in shape for this sport?
By sunshined — On Nov 18, 2012
About the only time I watch bobsledding on TV is during the winter Olympics. When I heard how fast those sleds fly down the hill I was amazed.

You can tell they are going really fast, but I never dreamed it was close to 90 miles per hour. Just like any team sport it looks like it takes a lot of coordination and communication among the bobsledders to get the best time. I wonder how they decide who sits where in the bobsled when they get ready to compete?

By honeybees — On Nov 17, 2012
@backdraft -- I love that movie too. Even if you aren't a fan of bobsledding it is hard not to like that movie. It has been around a long time and every once in awhile I see it at the movie store and watch it again. I have always enjoyed watching bobsled teams race so that is one reason I enjoy the movie so much.
By backdraft — On Oct 30, 2012

Cool Runnings, that movie about the Jamaican bobsled team, is one of my all time favorites. I saw it when it came out and I was only like 7 years old. But I loved it then and I still go back and watch it from time to time. It really holds up.

By truman12 — On Oct 29, 2012

Is there any way for the average person to get an opportunity to bobsled? Like, is there a company that will let me do it?

I have always wanted to try it, but like the other guy said is it pretty obscure. It looks awesome though. I would pay good money to try.

By anon90169 — On Jun 14, 2010

I'm a bobsledder. it costs a lot more to build a stadium than a bobsled track, and you almost never see it in the U.S. because of all the other sports.

and actually, you can bobsled without ice, just replace runners with wheels. and try sprinting with a 300 pound sled, putting up with the g force, and not crashing, then come back and don't call it a sport. i know it's your opinion and i respect that, but it's a lot harder than it looks.

By leilani — On Mar 03, 2010

I am sure it is a thrill to come down the icy bobsled track in about a minute. However, I fail to see it as a sport for masses with all the preparation, equipment, and runs that must cost a lot to build.

For skiing you need snow and some mountains, for ice skating you need some frozen water, but for bobsled, you need to build a track with a certain grade, turns, and you have to make sure you put some ice on top of it. How many of these tracks can be built?

So right there is a huge limitation. Apparently Germany has four, United States has two bobsled tracks.

And we really never see bobsled competitions, other than the Olympics.

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