Is Olympic Skeleton Safe?

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Having just been permanently added to the Winter Olympics for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the skeleton event still seems a little bit crazy to many people. If luge seems dangerous, skeleton seems insane, even bordering on suicidal. It’s hard to understand how anyone can hurdle on a sled down an icy track at 80 to 90 miles per hour under any circumstances, but head-first? How are these people still alive?

It’s easy to assume that this crazy-looking sport was added to the Olympic program to give a boost to the TV ratings. The consensus among analysts is that the Olympic Committee has, after ratings slumps for the Olympics in the ‘90s, felt pressure to make their sports faster, more spectacular and more dangerous. Skeleton meets these criteria in terrifying fashion.

But when you get down to it, skeleton can’t be that much more dangerous than luge. Of course, this isn’t saying much, as luge is widely regarded as the most dangerous Olympic sport. But the only real difference between the two is that lugers go feet first and skeleton sledders go head first. As history has shown, there are plenty of ways to get hurt and killed going feet first, and it’s not as if there are any solid walls bordering the luge track to make a headfirst crash significantly more dangerous than a feet-first one.

Then, when you take into consideration that modern luge tracks are brilliantly engineered with safety in mind, plus the fact that skeleton racers have spent years building up to the professional level, it doesn’t seem so bad. It’s not like the Olympic organizers are throwing barely trained kids on these sleds and pushing them down the track. These skeleton racers are well-trained professionals.

Of course, there are going to be accidents. The sport of luge is dotted with high-profile accidents and deaths throughout its history, and skeleton is no different. Fortunately, in light of the fatality at the Vancouver luge track leading up to the 2010 games, Olympic organizers are now more motivated than ever to make their tracks safe, which means that lugers, bobsledders, and skeleton racers can focus on winning rather than on keeping safe.

And because most people are only familiar with skeleton racing through the Olympics, it’s easy to forget that there are lower levels of the sport where people don’t go so fast. We all (at least those of us in cool climates) sledded headfirst down hills as kids, and skeleton is just a more developed version of this.

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