Many Winter Olympics have ancient origins, dating back to the time when humans discovered new ways to roam the rugged, white jungle. Skiing may have first appeared in Altai, China, 10,000 years ago, and the indigenous Sami word for skiing (“ouoigat”) is estimated to be between 6,000 and 8,000 years old. Thousands of years ago in northern Europe, people tied animal bones to their feet to skate on ice. And the first people in Canada used bogies to transport goods.
Although the game called Skeleton is technically played on sleds, it has no such sacred origin in the practical transport of humans or goods. Life was hard enough without central heating; There was no reason to do a first-of-a-kind addel under a frozen chute on a braceless sled.
Yet for all the modernity of the skeleton – it was only reintroduced into the Winter Olympics lineup in 2002 – scientists are still deeply confused by it.
Other sliding sports offer clear paths to victory. Bobslade drivers steer by pulling on two pieces of rope attached to the steering bolt. Lugers move forward by twisting his calf muscles and holding the handle of the sled. But skeleton racers can only guide themselves through the shrug of the shoulder or the tap of the foot. The way athletes, coaches and researchers are still trying to decode can help or hurt the slightest blink by altering the aerodynamics of the athlete.
“There’s a time when I use my eyes,” Virgin Islands skeleton athlete Katie Tenenbaum told The Times in 2018.
According to the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation, the skeleton was discovered on a whim. The game originated in the late 19th century on the Cresta Run, an icy outdoor track used for sledding in St. Petersburg. Moritz, Switzerland, while recreational sleders began heading down first. And although the name “Skeleton” fits into a game that seems to invite death, it has an obscure origin; It may have originated from the scattered, skeletal appearance of the English Norwegian word or steel sled. The sport appeared at the Olympics in 1928 and 1948, while the Games were held in St. Petersburg. Moritz.
The physics of sliding sports – skeletons, bobsleds and lugs – is simple. “It’s gravity that pulls you off the rails,” said Timothy Wei, a mechanical engineer who specializes in fluid mobility at Northwestern University who works with skeletal athletes. “And all the pulling forces are slowing you down.”
Most of the scattered, non-proprietary research on skeletons concerns the running phase of the sport, where athletes run to generate momentum while pushing their sleds a short distance before jumping into a ship. Scientists have also examined the ideal number of steps, the ideal step length and frequency and the ideal angles of the hips, knees, ankles and thighs during the running phase. But scientists know very little about the mechanics of the more terrifying phase of the skeleton.
There are many reasons.
Sliding is physically brutal: Athletes withstand four to five G-force pressures around the turn and must withstand the throbbing vibrations of the track. In Luge, athletes wear a neck belt to hold their head under high G-force; Bobsled athletes, seated, are surrounded by their vehicle. In the skeleton, athletes first experience the elements, as they lean their heads down to stay in shape, the chins moving just an inch above the hard ice, and the eyes are drawn up to visualize the track.
“You can’t do more than two to three runs a day,” said Dr. Wei said. “And by the end of the season, for a month or two, you can’t think clearly.” So while a runner can practice running whenever he wants, a skeleton athlete can skeleton for only a few hours each year, if he can; With few opportunities for testing, it is logically difficult to study skeletal runs.
Getting on track for practice is not easy. The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation lists only 17 tracks worldwide, all located in the Northern Hemisphere. This uniqueness creates economic and environmental barriers for sliders from other countries who hope to train, let them enter the Olympics.
And the tracks are often serpentine, winding like roller coasters, making it difficult to keep an eye on the athlete as they barrel down the track. The track of the Yanking National Sliding Center in Beijing, also known as “The Snow Dragon”, has a 360-degree turn. From Dr. Wei’s experience, watching the race, means “you see these guys running and disappear into the tunnel and they’re gone.” He added, “There is no way to know what the athlete is doing on the entire track and to get data from it.”
But in races where the margin of victory is usually a few tenths of a second, it is important for athletes to understand the aerodynamic forces as they slow down their slide, to reduce them. It can be difficult to know if pointing your face at ice, tweaking the position of your feet, or sliding up or down on a sled is really a waste of precious time.
Enter the gentle wind tunnel. More than a decade ago, Dr. Wei has created a system that mimics drag resistance that athletes experience in a real skeleton race. He made a mock section of the track as he exited an open wind tunnel with sensors embedded in the floor, near which he placed a mock sled. Sensors tracked athletes’ drag force and weight distribution.
Athletes mounted mock sleds, bound themselves against the gusts of wind, and were able to see in real time how their motion was affected by the slightest adjustment of their body through a plexiglass window on the floor of the tunnel.
Dr. Wei also conducted tests using a theatrical fog machine and illuminated by a green sheet of laser light. He tracked the movement of particles of fog and revealed how air circulates on the body and head of athletes, hoping to gain an understanding of more ways to reduce stretch marks.
Ms. Tenenbaum, who is set to compete for the Virgin Islands this week, said Dr. Wei wind tunnel in preparation for Beijing. (There are no bobsled tracks in the US Virgin Islands.) “Where does the trag come from?” Dr. Wei expressed surprise. “How much is it from the sled and how much is it from Katie?”
The wind tunnel cannot mimic the wonders of the actual track, where certain elements – small lumps on the ice, wind conditions, outside temperature – will always be out of the athlete’s control.
Part of the beauty of the skeleton compared to other sliding sports may be that it tells athletes to give up complete control over their fate on the ice.
“While it may seem completely insane, in many ways it is arguably the safest sport in sliding sports because you have very little steering control,” said Dr. Wei said. Overstearing in these games often leads to crashes. Luge, where speeds can be as high as 90 miles per hour, is considered one of the most dangerous sports in the Olympic Games.
The most aerodynamic skeleton racer will not be a fleshy human, but a real skeleton – the wind will whistle from the rib cage, Dr. Wei said, adding that the real skeleton would not be able to steer.
Until the Olympics open for the undead, the sport of skeleton remains in the realm of the living. And yet athletes look as steady as corpses, clinging to steel planks, sliding at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour toward the center of the earth, more firmly than ever and again and again.