What is skeleton?

Sports featuring a descent down an ice chute first began to appear in the early 19th century, and remain an integral part of the international sporting scene. There are three sports of this nature at the Winter Olympic Games: bobsleigh, skeleton and luge.

Since the athletes lie on the skeleton face-down, head-first and with their arms held straight beside the body, the skeleton is very reminiscent of the kind of winter tobogganing that you have probably enjoyed at some point in your life. The difference, though, is that the skeleton is much more demanding, not least because of the incredible speeds of around 130 km/h! Yes, you read that right – the competitors really do tear down the track at 130 km/h, face-down and just a couple of centimetres above the ice. Here's how it works.

The skeleton sled is made of fibreglass and steel, with two steel runners attached underneath and two handles on top. In some models the "handles" are actually the two sides of a special fibreglass body that is constructed to suit the physique of a particular athlete. Bumpers at the front and rear of the skeleton act as silencers, whilst also protecting the athletes against collisions with the side of the ice chute. The dimensions of the skeleton are: 80 to 120cm in length and 34 to 38cm wide (the distance between the runners). The maximum weight of the skeleton is 43kg for men and 35kg for women; and the weight of the sled and the athlete combined must not exceed 115kg for men and 92kg for women.

Skeleton sliders wear tight-fitting aerodynamic suits and tough helmets fitted with visors and chin-guards. The athletes must run as fast as possible on spiked shoes for 50 metres, trying to create momentum. During this sprint, the slider is bent double, holding onto the handles or the sides of the sled whilst pushing it down the track.

After 50 metres, the competitors must lie down on the sled and straighten out their bodies, while seeking to maintain the momentum they have generated during the run-up. Now it's time to travel about 1500 metres down the ice chute. The track features sharp corners and S-shaped bends. The sliders steer the skeleton by shifting their weight slightly to the left or right. At the end of the run, they slow the sled down to a complete stop using their legs.

Skeleton competitions were a part of the Olympics in 1928 and 1948, but were then absent from the Games for many years. In 2002, the skeleton was included in the Winter Olympic Games once again, with competitions for men and women. Both the men's and women's competitions are held over the course of two days, with competitors making two runs per day, each of which is timed to within one hundredth of a second. Points are awarded, and rankings determined, on the basis of the aggregate times for the four runs.