Everything you wanted to know about skeleton (but were afraid to ask)

Posted at 11:45 PM, Feb 04, 2022

In many ways, skeleton is a sport of subtlety: Lifting one's shoulder half an inch or slightly shifting weight from one side of the hip to the other can determine the 0.31-second difference that separates gold from silver. But watching skeleton sliders on TV, it's immediately apparent that a) the athletes go really fast, b) this sport looks really dangerous, and c) this also looks really, really cool. 

We're sure you have a lot of questions about skeleton. Here, we'll try to answer some of them.

How do skeleton racers go so fast?


To be a little clearer: Gravity does play a huge role, as it powers the sled down the course. 

But everything starts at the top, when an athlete pushes his or her sled as fast as possible with a running start and then lies prone on the vehicle. The slider has to remain as flat as possible to achieve the fastest speeds. 

By combining gravity, kinetic energy, aerodynamics, and an athlete's movements - and a mix of luck and skill riding the shortest path down a track - a skeleton slider can reach over 132 kilometers/80 miles per hour. Surprisingly, skeleton is actually the slowest of the three sled sports.

SEE MORE: Yun Sung-Bin becomes South Korean hero in 2018

Which *is* the fastest sled sport?

Short answer: Depends who you ask. But speed varies from course to course.

Bobsled, specifically the four-man event, is often considered the fastest of the three. (Add a half ton of equipment and people to the above equation, and you're likely to hit rocket speed.) At the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, the Latvian team reached just over 95 miles per hour, according to a New York Times article. Many reports allege, but do not cite recorded, speeds over 100 MPH.  

Luge can hit similar speeds. Austrian Manuel Pfister, who also competed at the Vancouver Games, supposedly reached 96 MPH at the Whistler course in Canada, but this remains unconfirmed.

SEE MORE: Winter Olympics 101: Basics of Bobsled

Why do they call it skeleton?

In 1882, English soldiers created the sport as a variation of tobogganing, or sledding, featuring a serpentine course that twisted and curved - kind of like a skeleton. 

Ten years later, an Englishman named Mr. Child created a steel sled intended for racing down similar tracks. The name may have originated from the sled's appearance.  

Some suggest the skeleton's name is an incorrect translation of the Norwegian word "kjelke," or "sled." We like to believe that Mr. Child wanted to give the newfound sport a cooler name than his own.

SEE MORE: Skeleton 101: Glossary

When was skeleton introduced into the Olympics?

Skeleton was first contested at the 1928 Olympics, then again at the 1948 Games. Both were held in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the accepted birthplace of the sport. 

It took 48 years and a lot of international interest - not to mention a significant push by the sport's governing body, the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation - for skeleton to return at the 2022 Salt Lake City Games. 

SEE MORE: Skeleton 101: Olympic History

Has any American ever won a skeleton medal at the Olympics?

Yes, the United States has actually won more skeleton medals than any other country: three golds, four silvers, and a bronze.

Most recently, the United States won two medals in 2014: Noelle-Pikus Pace earned silver, and Matthew Antoine took bronze.

Noelle Pikus-Pace
Team USA's Noelle Pikus-Pace earned silver in women's skeleton during the Sochi 2014 Olympics.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

What's the course like at the 2022 Winter Olympics?

Skeleton (as well as bobsled and luge) races take place at the Yanqing National Sliding Center on the Xiaohaituo Bobsled and Luge Track (also known as "the Snow Dragon"). The track is roughly a mile long (1.6 km), drops 397 feet of elevation (121 meters) – with the steepest section being an incredible 18% grade – and comprises 16 curves. There is a 360-degree turn, and the final section is notoriously tricky. 

SEE MORE: Skeleton 101: Venue

Is skeleton dangerous?

You can get hurt pretty bad, though luge is actually more dangerous. Crashes can result in broken bones, traumatic brain injuries, or worse.

Katie Uhlaender, who will make her fifth Games appearance at the 2022 Winter Olympics, has put her body through a lot, to say the least.

SEE MORE: Katie Uhlaender's love of nature, flow fuels skeleton fire

What is the difference between skeleton and luge?

In skeleton, the athlete lays his or her chest as close to the sled - and ground - as possible before zooming down the track.

In luge, the athlete lays his or her back against the sled and zooms down the track. 

Here's a useful chart: 



Skeleton Stomach Yes
Luge Back Yes


The helmets are pretty cool.

That's not a question, but yes, they sure are. 

Skeleton helmet
Canada's John Fairbairn had to seriously think about which helmet to wear at the Sochi 2014 Olympics.
USA Today