There are big shoes to fill for Team GB’s skeleton sliders at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, following Amy Williams’ gold medal success at Vancouver 2010 and Lizzy Yarnold’s double win over Sochi 2014 and Pyeongchang 2018.
Yarnold - Britain’s most successful winter Olympian - has since retired, leaving Pyeongchang bronze medallist Laura Deas as the main female contender to match their success. Despite a slow start to the season, the former equestrian competitor feels she is on course to peak just at the right time.
In the men’s event, the pickings are rich. Matt Weston became the first British man to win a skeleton World Cup gold in almost 14 years when sharing a three-way victory in Igls. Compared to his peers, the 24-year-old has only been on the circuit for a short space of time - and he himself admits that he is well ahead of schedule.
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Marcus Wyatt also looks in contention for a decent run at the Olympics, having finished second at a recent test event in China.
The success of Williams and Yarnold especially has put Great Britain second on the all-time medal table, a remarkable achievement given there is not one ice track in the UK. USA lead the overall standings thanks to a superior silver count, though Team GB have more medals than any other nation with nine.
But at the 2021 World Championships, Germany were completely dominant, winning 15 medals in total, including five golds. To put that into context, the next best nation in the table was the USA - and they only claimed two medals - both gold.
Like its sister sports luge and bobsleigh, skeleton’s origin can be traced back to the Swiss resort town of St Moritz in the late 1800s, and not much separates the different sliding disciplines when it comes to speed.
What is skeleton?
Only Britain’s second most successful winter Olympic sport (after figure skating, if you are curious). Medal success in the past two decades has come from Williams, Yarnold, Deas, Shelley Rudman, Dom Parsons and Alex Coomber.
The sport is fairly simple, if not terrifying. Run as fast as you can, jump on what looks like a sled which looks like a tea tray and hurtle down an ice track head first. It is thought to be the oldest sliding sport, before the likes of luge and bobsleigh.
Team GB participants and medal prospects
Laura Deas (left) and Lizzy Yarnold (right) celebrate their medals at Pyeongchang 2018
Image credit: Eurosport
In the women’s competition, Deas is the main British contender and she has looked in decent shape in 2021. The Pyeongchang bronze medallist was edged out of the podium places at the World Championships in February, finishing fourth. Former junior heptathlete Brogan Crowley, who switched sports due to a repetitive ankle injury, will also represent Team GB.
The main British medal hopes could come in the men’s event, after Wyatt’s second place at the test event in Beijing. He has also been challenging near the podium at World Cup events.
Matt Weston, who is a World Cup gold medallist from Igls in November 2021, makes up the quartet of British representation.
Overall, Germany are the team to beat - with world champions in both the men’s and women’s event through Christopher Grotheer and multiple world gold medallist Tina Hermann.
Skeleton events and format
Very simple, one men’s and one women’s event and 50 athletes can qualify for each. Each slider has four runs at the course over two days - each time is added together and the fastest rider wins.
The competitions will be held at the Yanqing National Sliding Centre.
Who won the last Olympic gold in skeleton and what is the world record?
Team GB has dominated the women’s event since 2010, despite not always being the World Championship winners.
Lizzy Yarnold won back-to-back gold at Sochi 2014 and Pyeongchang 2018, but she has now retired.
In the men’s event, South Korea’s Yun Sung-bin is the reigning champion, but he could only finish 17th at the worlds in 2021.
As each track is slightly different, there are only course records rather than world records - all of the top athletes are yet to compete at the Yanqing National Sliding Centre.
There are not many rules to skeleton, but there are some key basics to remember. The slider will start their heat by running as fast as they can and holding on to the sled with one hand, before jumping on - the time starts as soon as they cross the line, about 20-30 metres from where the push starts.
Each slider uses body movement and special shoes to steer and control the movement and speed of the sled, with the lowest overall time over four heats winning gold.
Each sled has a weight limit - 43kg for men, 35kg for women, and the overall weight (including the athlete) must not exceed 115kg for men and 92kg for women.
What’s the difference between skeleton, luge and bobsleigh?
You could argue in the order of skeleton, luge and bobsleigh, they all get progressively less frightening - but even the latter is a dangerous thrill ride not every athlete can get on board with.
All of the sports use the same sliding tracks, but from different start points. Skeleton involves hurtling down head first with athletes lying on their front. Luge is the opposite: it is feet first and lying on your back, facing up. Skeleton sleds are much more minimalist, while luge is shaped a bit more to incorporate those natural curves of the body…
Bobsleigh is an entirely different beast featuring high speed, expertly-engineered sleds which essentially have a cockpit. Each member of the team jumps into it and tries to be as aerodynamic as possible, with a pilot driving from the front.
How do you steer in skeleton?
There is no steering device on a skeleton bobsleigh, meaning the athlete relies on their own body to keep control of the sled. That means it is all about shifting gravity, manoeuvring knees, hips and shoulders to keep on course. Sliders also wear special shoes with spikes (basically like shoes worn in track and field) and tap their toes to make subtle changes in direction.
How fast do you go in skeleton?
Pretty quick - sleds can get up to speeds of roughly 140 km/h, meaning athletes are subjected to G-force five times the normal amount.
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How dangerous is skeleton?
They make it look so easy - but imagine speeding head first down a steep tube of ice and trying to keep complete control. Sliders assume a pin-like position to make themselves as aerodynamic as possible and the chin area of their helmet is practically touching the ice. Athletes have to endure a G-force five times what they would normally be used to, meaning it is brutal on the body. If something goes wrong, with speeds of up to 140 km/h, crashes can be predictably very dangerous.
What’s faster - bobsleigh, luge or skeleton?
Bobsleigh is easily the fastest of the sliding sports - everything is more heavy and therefore the sled can travel faster down the course. Average speeds are typically around 150 km/h, but the world record is as quick as 210 km/h. There is very little to separate luge and skeleton for speed - both reach speeds of around 140 km/h.
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