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Along for the Ride
NPR Reporter Gives the Bobsled an Olympic Try

listen Listen to Howard Berkes' report.

listen Listen to audio of Howard Berkes' bobsled ride.

video Get a first-person look at what it's like to ride the bobsled.

video Watch a video looking back at bobsled riders.

  Videos courtesy Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

Jan. 16, 2002 -- Veteran bobsledder Ivan Radcliff told NPR's Howard Berkes about his first bobsled ride: "Your head's being thrown down... getting whipped around, not really knowing how to hold your head, helmet slamming each side. It's not like a roller coaster," Radcliff joked, "because at least in a roller coaster, you're not gonna really die."

Berkes in bobsled

Howard Berkes prepares for the ride.
Photo: Wanda Gayle
See a wider view.

So Berkes had fair warning when he was stuffed like a sardine into a blue four-man bobsled, just so he could experience what it's like to hurtle down nearly a mile of ice in 52 seconds.

As part of a series where NPR reporters attempt some of the games to be featured at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City next month, Berkes took a nighttime bobsled ride at Utah's Olympic Park. He went along with two other "tourists" who forked over $200 each to sit in a sled driven by Bill Tavares, coach of the U.S. women's bobsled team.

As Berkes explains on All Things Considered: "Our visored helmets weighed 20 pounds, and would feel like 100 pounds when the G-forces kicked in. So we were told to hunker down, with our chins on our chests, so our heads wouldn't slam to the floor."

As the ride begins, Berkes thinks, "Not too bad. Wooooo!"

"That was before turn four, when we suddenly snapped up and sideways, five feet high on the curve, G-forces pounding us down."

Bobsled heads down the track

Speeding down the track at the start.
Photo: Wanda Gayle

At turn six, "air's forced from the lungs. The turns are then lost in the twisting and banging, and the lights racing by. We're 800 pounds of flesh and fiberglass, hurtling downward faster and faster." Top speed: 81 mph.

Then, suddenly, the ride is over. "We staggered out of the sled, dizzy and sore. It happened way too fast, under a minute. This is the fastest course in the world. In fact, we were close to world-class speed and time, faster than any bobsled at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. At least that's what the track crew told us."

Bobsledding Facts and Figures

The sport began in Switzerland in the late 1800s, but there is evidence that lumber sleds were raced in Albany, N.Y., perhaps a few years earlier.

The bobsled made its Olympic debut in 1924 as a four-man event. The two-man version was added in the 1932 Olympics.

Women bobsledders will compete in the Olympics for the first time in the 2002 Salt Lake City games. It is a two-woman event.

The driver steers the bobsled by pulling on two pieces of rope attached to a steering bolt that turns the sled's front frame. Braking is accomplished by lifting a level that lowers jagged metal into the ice.

The men's two-man sled must weigh at least 374 pounds empty. Including crew and equipment, the maximum weight is 858 pounds. The maximum length is eight feet 10 inches and the maximum width is two feet two inches.

The men's four-man sled must weigh at least 462 pounds empty. The maximum weight when full is 1,386 pounds. The maximum length is 12 feet six inches and the maximum width is two feet two inches.

The women's sled must weigh a minimum 374 pounds empty. The maximum weight when full is 770 pounds. The maximum length is eight feet, 10 inches and the maximum width is two feet two inches.

Source: Salt Lake Organizing Committee

Previous NPR Coverage

NPR's Tom Goldman gives the biathlon a shot.

NPR's Howard Berkes previews the women's bobsled competition.

Other Resources

Official Salt Lake 2002 Web site about the bobsled, luge and skeleton

U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation

International Federation of Bobsleigh and Tobogganing