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The Slippery Science of Skeleton

Many Winter Olympic sports activities have historical origins, courting to instances when people invented new methods of getting round within the harsh, white wilderness. Snowboarding might have first emerged 10,000 years in the past in Altay, China, and the Indigenous Sámi phrase for snowboarding (“čuoigat”) is estimated to be 6,000 to eight,000 years outdated. Hundreds of years in the past in Northern Europe, folks strapped animal bones to their toes to skate round on ice. And the First Peoples in Canada used toboggans to move items.

The game referred to as skeleton has no such hallowed origins within the sensible transport of people or items, regardless of technically happening on a sled. Life was onerous sufficient with out central heating; there was no cause to hurdle face-first down a frozen chute on a brakeless sled.

But for all of the modernity of skeleton — it was reintroduced to the Winter Olympics lineup solely in 2002 — scientists are nonetheless deeply puzzled by it.

The opposite sliding sports activities present clearer paths to victory. Bobsled drivers steer by pulling on two items of rope connected to a steering bolt. Lugers steer by flexing their calf muscular tissues and gripping the sled’s handles. However skeleton racers can information themselves with solely the subtlest of shoulder shrugs or foot faucets. The slightest twitch will help or damage by altering the athlete’s aerodynamics in ways in which athletes, coaches and researchers are nonetheless attempting to decode.

“There are even instances after I simply use my eyes,” Katie Tannenbaum, a skeleton athlete from the Virgin Islands, instructed The Occasions in 2018.

Skeleton was invented on a little bit of a whim, in keeping with the Worldwide Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation. The game began within the late nineteenth century on the Cresta Run, an icy outside monitor used for sledding in St. Moritz, Switzerland, when leisure sledders started careening down headfirst. And though the identify “skeleton” matches a sport that would appear to ask loss of life head-on, it has murky origins; it might have arisen from a poorly Anglicized Norwegian phrase or the metal sled’s sparse, skeletal look. The game appeared within the Olympics in 1928 and 1948, when the video games have been held in St. Moritz.

The physics of the sliding sports activities — skeleton, bobsled and luge — are easy. “It’s gravity that pulls you down the monitor,” stated Timothy Wei, a mechanical engineer with experience in fluid dynamics at Northwestern College, who works with skeleton athletes. “And all of the drag forces are slowing you down.”

A lot of the sparse, nonproprietary analysis on skeleton considerations the sprinting part of the game, the place athletes run to generate velocity whereas pushing their sled throughout a brief distance earlier than leaping aboard. Scientists have investigated the splendid variety of steps, the splendid step size and frequency and even the splendid angles of the hips, knees, ankles and thighs throughout the operating part. However scientists know far much less concerning the mechanics of the extra terrifying part of skeleton.

There are a lot of causes.

The sliding is bodily brutal: Athletes endure 4 to 5 G-forces of stress round turns and should face up to the rattling vibrations of the monitor. In luge, athletes put on a neck strap to carry up their head below excessive G-forces; bobsled athletes, seated, are enveloped by their car. In skeleton, athletes expertise the weather face-first, all whereas tucking their heads down to stay streamlined, chins hovering simply inches above the onerous ice and eyes straining upward to visualise the monitor.

“You’ll be able to’t do greater than two to a few runs per day,” Dr. Wei stated. “And by the top of the season, for one or two months you simply can’t assume clearly.” So whereas a runner can observe operating at any time when they like, a skeleton athlete is ready to skeleton for just a few cumulative hours per yr, if that; with few alternatives for testing, skeleton runs are logistically troublesome to check.

It’s not straightforward to get to a monitor for observe. The Worldwide Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation lists simply 17 tracks all over the world, all positioned within the Northern Hemisphere. This exclusivity creates financial and environmental boundaries for sliders from different nations hoping to coach, not to mention make it to the Olympics.

And the tracks are sometimes serpentine, winding like curler coasters, making it troublesome to maintain a steady eye on an athlete as they barrel down the monitor. The monitor on the Yanqing Nationwide Sliding Heart in Beijing, additionally referred to as “the Snow Dragon,” has a 360-degree flip. From Dr. Wei’s expertise, watching a race means “you simply watch these guys dash and disappear right into a tunnel they usually’re gone.” He added, “There’s no approach to know precisely what the athlete is doing alongside your complete monitor, and to get information off it.”

However in a race the place victory margins are usually a number of hundredths of a second, it’s essential for athletes to know the aerodynamic forces slowing their slide, so as to decrease them. Along with your face pointing towards the ice, it may be onerous to know whether or not tweaking the place of your foot or sliding up or down on the sled truly shaves off valuable time.

Enter the common-or-garden wind tunnel. Greater than a decade in the past, Dr. Wei constructed a system that simulated the drag resistance that athletes expertise in an precise skeleton run. He constructed a mock part of a monitor on the exit of an open wind tunnel with sensors embedded within the flooring, close to which he mounted a mock sled. The sensors tracked the drag forces and weight distribution of the athletes.

Athletes mounted a mock sled, braced themselves in opposition to the gusts of wind, and have been capable of view in real-time how slight changes of their physique affected their velocity via a plexiglass window on the ground of the tunnel.

Dr. Wei additionally performed checks utilizing a theatrical fog machine and illuminated by a inexperienced sheet of laser mild. He tracked the motion of the fog particles to disclose how air swirled over the athletes’ our bodies and heads, within the hopes of gaining perception into additional methods of lowering drag.

Ms. Tannenbaum, who is ready to compete for the Virgin Islands this week, labored with Dr. Wei’s wind tunnel to organize for Beijing. (There are not any bobsled tracks within the U.S. Virgin Islands.) “The place is the drag coming from?” Dr. Wei puzzled. “How a lot of it’s from the sled itself, and the way a lot is from Katie?”

A wind tunnel can not replicate the surprises of an actual monitor, the place sure components — the tiny bumps on the ice, the wind circumstances, the outside temperature — will at all times be out of the athlete’s management.

A part of the fantastic thing about skeleton, in contrast with the opposite sliding sports activities, could also be that it asks athletes to relinquish whole management over their future on the ice.

“Despite the fact that it seems to be utterly insane, in some ways it’s the most secure of the sliding sports activities paradoxically as a result of you’ve gotten so little steering management,” Dr. Wei stated. Oversteering in these sports activities can typically result in a crash. Luge, the place speeds can high 90 miles per hour, is taken into account some of the harmful sports activities within the Olympic Video games.

Essentially the most aerodynamic skeleton racer wouldn’t be a fleshy human, however an precise skeleton — the wind would whistle proper via the rib-cage, Dr. Wei stated, including that an precise skeleton wouldn’t have the ability to steer.

Till the Olympics opens to the undead, the game of skeleton stays within the area of the dwelling. And although the athletes might look as nonetheless as corpses, there’s nothing extra resolutely alive than clinging to a metal plank, sliding 80 miles per hour towards the middle of the Earth, over and time and again.

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