Olympic luge/bobsled/skeleton: The essential guide

Skeleton
Sarah Reid of Canada makes a practice skeleton run ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Sanki Sliding Center on February 5, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

What are the origins of the sports?
The sports were all developed during the late 1880s in Switzerland as a pastime for tourists who wanted a thrill sledding down the Alps. Bobsled has been an Olympic sport since 1924 (the 2-man was added in 1932 and women's was added in 2002). Skeleton made appearances in 1924 and 1948 before being added again in 2002. Luge, for both men and women, has been an Olympic sport since 1964.

Why are boblsed and skeleton grouped together, but not luge?
It's all about the runners. Boblsed and skeleton and have rounded runners, while luge sleds have sharp steel blades, more like an ice skate.

Which is hardest?
Tony Benshoof, a three-time Olympic luger from White Bear Lake, tried all three when he was training at Lake Placid. He admits he might be a little biased, but he thinks luge is the most difficult. "Skeleton gets a bad-boy image because they go head first, but it's actually the easiest to do. Luge is the most dangerous," he said. First, there are the sharp steel blades, which make turning more difficult. And then there's the fact that you can't see. "It slows you down if you put your head up so the best lugers are not looking much at all," Benshoof said. "You have to memorize the track."

Does weight matter?
Since these are gravity sports, being heavier will make you go faster. So there are maximum weights set to ensure a level playing field. Skeleton players can add ballast to their sleds to get closer to the maximum. In luge, the lighter athletes can wear lead so that everyone weighs the same. The runners and blades must be kept at a certain temperature, since they'll go faster if they are warmer. They're kept at approximately the same temperature as the ice and are measured before the runs.

Tony Benshoof
Tony Benshoof of the USA competes during the Luge Men's Singles on day 2 of the 2010 Winter Olympics at Whistler Sliding Centre on February 13, 2010 in Whistler, Canada.
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

How fast is the track this year?
Benshoof, who raced in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Olympics, said the courses have been getting faster ever since the 1988 Olympics. In 2002, he hit 90 mph, in 2006 he hit mid 90s and in 2010 he hit 100 mph on the Vancouver Olympics track before the tragic crash that killed Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. This year, Benshoof expects most racers to be somewhere in the high 80s or low 90s — still fast, but not as dangerous as the Vancouver course.

How is the winner determined?
Whoever has the fastest combined time wins, and the times are often incredibly close. Bobsled and skeleton times are measured up to hundredths of a second, while luge is measured up to thousandths of a second. In 2006, Benshoof missed a bronze medal by a tenth of a second. This year, Team USA has a faster bobsled, designed by BMW.

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Bobsled
Aja Evans and Elana Meyers of the United States practice a bobsleigh run ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Sanki Sliding Center on February 5, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

How does doubles luge work?
Even though they're heavier they don't go as fast as singles because they start three turns further down the track (the same starting point for women's luge). "Doubles is very complicated," Benshoof said. "The bottom literally can't see anything, but he's the one steering. It takes a lot of time, coordination and practice to arrive safely."

Minnesota's Olympic luger
Christian Niccum was born in Minneapolis and lives in Washington state.

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Find more: Your guide to the 2014 Winter Olympics