Five-ring Circus

The Worst-Designed Sport of All Time

Why you can turn off the Olympic bobsled finals after five minutes.

Members of the United States bobsleigh team practice ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Sanki Sliding Center on February 6, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
Members of the U.S. bobsled team practice ahead of the Olympic Games at the Sanki Sliding Center on Feb. 6, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images

In the 1994 Winter Olympics, the Jamaican bobsled team had its best showing ever. After the first of four runs, the Jamaicans were just 0.83 seconds out of the lead. But despite that strong start, they had virtually no chance to win a medal. That’s not because they were from a small, tropical country, nor because they had faltered in previous Olympics. Rather, the Jamaicans had no chance because nobody who’s trailing in an Olympic bobsled competition ever has a chance. In 1994, the first-place Germans followed up with three more almost identical runs and went on to win the gold. It happens every time. There is no international competition that’s more predictable, or more dreadfully boring.

The rules of Olympic bobsled are simple. In the two-person and four-person events, each team slides down the track four times. (The men compete in both bobsled formats, while women are restricted to the two-at-a-time variety.) The track does not change from round to round. The team with the lowest cumulative time wins.

Seeing as the track does not change, the sled does not change, and the athletes do not change, you may not be surprised to learn that the times do not change much either. While there is some variation round to round, these time differences are so minuscule that dramatic comebacks, or even modest ones, are close to impossible.

The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation keeps detailed statistics back to 2005 for all Olympic and world championship events. In this time period, for all four-man, two-man, and two-woman bobsled competitions, the team ahead after the third run has won 100 percent of the time. The fourth run of an international bobsled competition, then, is the most meaningless event in all of sports—or at least tied for first in the meaninglessness rankings with every preseason NFL game.

The team that’s leading after two runs has gone on to win 85 percent of the time, and even after one run the leading team wins 70 percent of competitions. That means the Russian two-man team of Alexander Zubkov and Alexey Voevoda, which sits in first place after the first two runs in Sochi, should feel very, very good about its chances.

While we would expect the first-round leaders to have an advantage, this is a bit much. There are 30 competitors in the two-man bobsled competition in Sochi, and they each have a very small slice of the 30 percent chance of stealing the gold medal from the first-run leaders. (As you could have predicted, the Russians also led after the first run.) If you’re not in the lead after one run, you should probably give up on the gold. And if you’re in fourth place or worse, your chances of getting any kind of medal are slim. In more than 70 percent of all races, every position on the podium is locked in once three runs are complete.

A well-designed sport has enough variability to create suspense. Imagine if after three quarters of a football game the winner could be predicted 100 percent of the time. (Ad time in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl would be much cheaper, at least.) Golf, similar to bobsled in that it features an open field competing on the same course four times, is vastly different in terms of predictability. Over the past 10 years of golf majors, the eventual winner was in the lead 15 percent of the time after the first day. After days two and three, the percentage increased to 35 percent and 45 percent respectively. (Even when you account for the fact that there are a lot more competitors in a golf tournament than in a bobsled event, these numbers are still stark—45 percent is a whole lot less than 100 percent.)

Is it inherently bad to have a sport that’s so predictable? It is at least in the case of bobsled, considering that it features four anonymous helmets poking out of identical sleds, with no particular strategy discernible to the naked eye. Given those parameters, you’d think suspense would be the only reason to watch. Since there’s absolutely no suspense to be had, you’d be better off switching to Animal Planet whenever you see a bobsled charging across your television screen.

Can this terrible sport be fixed? While the Olympics and the world championships feature four runs per team, all other competitions governed by the IBSF mandate only two runs. Bringing that format to the Olympics would increase variability and make the final result more dramatic. Considering that most bobsled competitions are already two runs, it wouldn’t bastardize the sport to make this move. Of course, having fewer runs would decrease the chance that the “best” team wins. But that would at least inject a little bit of life into one of the dullest sports ever concocted by man.

Bobsled’s companion sports on icy tracks, skeleton and luge, are only slightly less boring. Since 2005, the leaders after the first two of four skeleton runs in the Olympics and world championships have gone on to win 85 percent of the time. Luge’s rate, in men’s and women’s singles competitions, is just under 82 percent. (In the 2014 Olympics, the leaders after the first two heats won every skeleton and luge event.) These similar results show that the format of summing four time trials on identical tracks does not make for the best competition. That’s why Usain Bolt doesn’t have to sprint four times once he reaches the 100-meter finals, and Michael Phelps doesn’t have to get back in the pool over and over and over and over again in the same event against the exact same competition. While bobsled is the worst offender, luge and skeleton could be made more interesting as well with a simple reduction in the number of runs.

Bobsled will get a fair amount of airtime in the last week of NBC’s coverage of the Sochi Games. The announcers will likely marvel at how close the competition is, and how the gold medal is supposedly up for grabs. It really won’t be. But hey, all is not lost: At least you can impress your friends by predicting the winner every single time.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.