Head First Into History

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In 1948 olympic organizers looked at skeleton bobsleigh, so called because the first sleds were so rudimentary, and decided the sport was too dangerous. Sliding head first at up to 135 km/h on a tiny sled with no brakes and no steering down an ice track was just too crazy.

It has taken 54 years for skeleton sliders to convince the authorities that it's no more risky than slithering feet first on a luge, leaping into the wide blue from a 90-m hill, or any of the other sports included in the Winter Olympics. And in these Games, women will be competing for the first time.

"It looks a lot more dangerous than it really is," maintains Alex Coomber, the reigning women's World Cup champion. We'll take her word for it. A skeleton run begins with a 30-m sprint before the slider dives onto the 90-cm sled to hurtle around 15 steeply banked curves of the 1,500-m course. And without any mechanism for steering, sliders can control their descent only by shifting hips and shoulders. They risk losing precious 100ths of a second if they touch a toe on the ice.

Coomber clearly enjoys the challenge of races that last less than a minute. "Things are coming at you very fast," she says. "We only ever see three or four meters in front of us, yet the faster you go, the slower it feels." Coomber's day job — intelligence officer with the Royal Air Force — serves her well in rationalizing the inherent dangers in her sport. "When you look at it logically," she says, "you're only 10 centimeters above the ice, so there's no distance to fall." Not that much to worry about then.