So skeleton racing concluded today at the Sochi Games, and as the medalists ascended the podium, viewers around the world finally exhaled and expressed their thanks that nobody died. From the casual sports fan’s vantage point, skeleton looks like the fastest, scariest, most dangerous sport in the world. Riders plunge head-first down an ice chute atop a tiny sled at speeds upwards of 75 mph. Then, if they don’t crash, they do it again.
But at least compared with all the other petrifying Olympic sliding sports, skeleton isn’t as fast as you’d think. Matthew Antoine of the United States won bronze in men’s skeleton today with a maximum speed of 129.2 km/hr, or 80.3 mph. The top American luger, Christopher Mazdzer, had a top speed of 137.3 km/hr, or 85.3 mh. That was only good enough to earn Mazdzer a 13th place finish. The top speed recorded in women’s skeleton this year was 126.9 km/hr, or 78.9 mph. The top speed in women’s luge was 136.0 km/hr, or 84.5 mph. Clearly, the Olympic lugers ought to be the ones with the skulls on their helmets, while the skeleton racers should shift to something more appropriate, maybe some sort of dyspeptic turtle.
Why is luge faster than skeleton? Two main reasons. First, it has to do with the materials of the respective runners, or the metallic bars attached to the underside of the sled. Skeleton racers ride downhill atop a set of tubular steel runners, which sort of look like they were yanked off of a stainless steel towel rack. The dullness of these runners helps to limit a skeleton racer’s speed. A luge sled, by contrast, rests atop a pair of razor-sharp steel blades that cut into the ice like a pair of skates. The sharp edges of the luge runners help make the luge sleds faster than their skeleton counterparts.
Another reason why luge is faster than skeleton? Luge racers assume a much more aerodynamic position than skeleton racers. In skeleton, you lie face-first on the sled and lead with your helmet. In case you haven’t seen one lately, helmets tend to be big and round. All of that surface area creates more drag, slowing the skeleton sled down. But luge racers lie on their backs and lead with their feet. Less surface area, less drag, faster sled. It’s basic science, people!
So, yes, luge is faster. But to be clear, skeleton is very fast. So is the bobsled. And world-class sliding athletes take every opportunity possible to soup up their rides and make them go even faster. The U.S. luge team, for example, has partnered with Dow Chemicals to engineer strong, speedy steel-composite runners made from top-secret materials in the hope of shaving seconds off the luge team’s times. Other sliders employ extra-legal modifications in order to increase their speeds; skeleton riders are routinely accused of “greasing the runners” by coating them with friction-reducing goo, while bobsledders have been known to heat their runners to reduce friction on the ice. “It’s part of our sport. If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t racing,” a Canadian bobsledder recently told USA Today. And I get it, if you want to win the race, you need to go faster than everyone else. But these sleds are plenty fast already. Whatever happened to slowing down and enjoying the ride?