Can Anybody Learn To Bobsleigh? We Went To An Olympic Arena To Test A Prototype Sled... And It Was Terrifying
Nobody in Cool Runnings contemplated their own, immediate death. Disney lied to us.
ourage," wrote Mark Twain “is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.". It’s unclear where the author of the great American novel was when he wrote those words, but I’m willing to bet that he wasn’t standing at the top of an Olympic bobsleigh track, moments before testing a prototype sled.
I, on the other hand, am.
My mind is racing with an unmanageable quantity of thoughts, ranging from the rational to the absurd, and all of them are differing ways in which I am - not may, or could, but am - about to die.
These fearsome premonitions are joined in my mind by images of loved ones. I wonder if this is life flashing before my eyes - a thought that only piles on the terror. When isn’t life flashing before one's eyes a precursor to mortality?
Twelve hours earlier, the mood was significantly more jovial.
Along with a handful of fellow journalist and photographers, I was in Munich, Germany as a guest of car giants Nissan. As I sat at breakfast in a tupperware box-like airport hotel in Munich, one of my cohort, Nissan sponsored professional racing driver Jann Mardenborough, slid a boiled egg from the continental buffet into his tracksuit pocket, only to produce it, exclaiming “it’s Sankas lucky egg!".
"Disney lied to us"
Whenever bobsleigh is mentioned, thoughts immediately switch to the greatest cultural signifier of the sport most people have: 1993 Disney film Cool Runnings. It’s the heart-warming tale of the unlikely Jamaican bobsleigh team, which includes superstitious Sanka Coffie and his lucky egg, making it all the way to the winter Olympics in Calgary where - SPOILER ALERT - they fail in the most glorious of circumstances.
As a nation, when we think bobsleigh and we think Cool Runnings. We think Cool Runnnings, we think fun. Laughter. Joy. We don’t imagine ways in which we’re about to die. Disney lied to us.
Before long, we’re on the road, driving from the bustle of Munich, four hours South to the Austrian ski town of Innsbruck. The speed and efficiency (what else?) of the German autobahn soon gave way to the scenic alpine roads of Austria.
Eventually, we make our way to Innsbruck, the host city of numerous Winter Olympics. We bypassed the town and the iconic 50 metre high Bergisel ski jump at it’s centre, and continued to Igls, the Olympic Sliding Centre.
Igls (pronounced Eagles) has hosted Olympic games and countless world championships. It’s a world class Bobsleigh and Sliding facility that’s steeped in the grandest of sporting history. It looks a bit like a youth club. Granted, a youth club with a twisting 1.2 kilometre chute of hard, frozen ice running through it, but a youth club nonetheless.
I’d assumed, like any would-be bobsledder, I’d feel intimidated when presented with the behemoth of a course, but, if anything, I was charmed. This quickly changed.
While walking up to the on-site cafe, a team from the German military were using the track to practice their bobsleighing. Long before I could see them, I could hear the thunderous rumble of the bobsleigh - which I was later to find out is called a sled - racing down the track.
The cacophony of their approach got ever louder before they finally emerged into view. They were sliding upside down. This was my first view of live bobsleighing - my very first glimpse into this world, and I see it going terribly wrong.
“I’m no bobsleigh expert," I said aloud “but that doesn’t look right.". Everybody laughed. Only, that didn’t happen. I didn’t say those words. That’s the kind of thing that’s conjured in the mind, well after the event. What the French would call l'esprit d'escalier.
I was frozen to the spot. Incapable of rational thought, and certainly incapable of speech. Was I going to end up in some icy, upside down coffin? The seconds it took to uproot my feet from the floor seems to take forever, but eventually I continued up to the cafe which was to be our meeting place.
"Put your head towards the pain. That should stop the ice from tearing your flesh away"
Once inside I was greeted by two men. The first was a tall, bald man. Without saying a word, or even moving a muscle, he had the aura of a man who could break a fully grown adult in half. He was introduced to us as Sean Olsson, Olympic bronze medal winning bobsledder. He was to be the driver of our prototype Nissan bobsleigh. This should have been a relief, but on top of the growing terror, I also felt the need to, if not impress Olsson, at least not disappoint him with ineptitude.
The second man was shorter, with the build of a 1980’s rugby player and the face of a Northern comedian with a thousand mother-in-law jokes. It transpired he’s Ian Richardson, former Bobsledder, one-time coach of the British military bobsleigh team, and the co-creator of the prototype seven-seater Nissan sled that I’d soon be trusting my life to.
“At all times, keep your arms inside the sled" insisted Richardson. “Anything outside can easily get ripped off, and it’s a nightmare trying to clean the track afterwards." he added by way of a reassuring joke. His efforts go unappreciated.
The torturers of the Spanish Inquisition hit upon the idea of showing victims the apparatus that would soon be used to get them to confess. This safety briefing seemed like a long, slow look at blood-soaked rack. “The chances of something going wrong are low" he assured us.
“What happened with the upturned sled when we arrived?" asked a shaky voice from the back of the room. “Yeah, that can happen" replied Richardson with the nonchalance of a man discussing how toast can sometimes be a little burnt. “If your sled overturns, just let the journey ride out on your helmet. Oh, and if you feel the ice rubbing against your shoulder, just put your helmet towards where it hurts. That should stop the ice from tearing your flesh away."
Every fibre of my being wanted to back out. I was willing my mobile to ring with bad news. To be struck down with some injury that would stop me from having to get into the sled. To willingly walk into certain death. “One last thing," added Richardson with a smile, “Enjoy it.".
A minibus ferried me and five others to the top of the track. Our host had gone ahead of us, and when I arrived Olsson is already sat in the driving seat at the very front of the sled. My mouth’s dry. “Right, “bellows Richardson “time to take your seats.".
"This is how I’m going to die. Here. Today. Now"
A strange game emerges among the petrified. Nobody wants to get in, but everybody wants to avoid being the seventh person as they’d be sitting at the back of the sled and, whether logically or not, the most likely to fall out. It was a game of brinkmanship silently agreed between us all.
Eventually somebody steps forward. And then another. Now it’s a race to fill the remaining spaces. It feels equally preposterous and essential. William Golding would have had a field day observing this absurd ritual. There’s now a jostle to find a spot.
Seats three and four go. It’s almost a relief to occupy my mind with this stupidity. Any chivalrous notions have long been abandoned as I push my way into the fifth seat.
Getting seven people into the sled it a tricky business. My legs straddle the man immediately in front of me. My chest is pressed up against his back. My crotch against his backside. The sixth man gets in and he’s just as close to me. It’s the kind of ridiculously awkward situation with relative strangers that should be hilarious, but in my head is nothing but fear. My rush to avoid being at the back has, I’m convinced, sealed my fate.
Now all there is to do is to sit and wait, wrestling with my thoughts. This is how I’m going to die. Here. Today. Now.
Mark Twain and his words are no help. I’m not mastering fear. I’m consumed by it. I’m certainly not the most courageous man on the planet. Far from it. But I’m not unfamiliar with being in situations that involve a healthy amount of fear. I’ve snowboarded in zero visibility. I’ve wakeboarded in jellyfish-filled water. I’ve had nights out in Wolverhampton. But this...?
I think of loved ones. I imagine my dad telling tearful mourners “it’s what he would have wanted". It isn’t.
With everybody now on board and in position, Richardson and a handful of the Igls staff stand behind the seven-seater Nissan sled. “Right, let's get you started" says Richardson, ominously.
A push start and we’re away. The sled vibrates as the blades underneath slice through the ice. The opportunity to wave the white flag has gone. There is now no way out.
We hit the first steep decline in the run and immediately pick up speed. I resist the temptation to close my eyes. “Why? What’s the point?" I assure myself. Within seconds we’re in our first banked corner. The sled rocks violently to the side and my helmet slams against the inside of the carriage.
The helmet of the person in front obscures my view. I try to position my head so I can see what’s coming up next. Suddenly we’re spat out of the corner, and fired down a straight. This time the other side of my helmet smashes into the sled. I’m not bothered. I’m just trying to get a look at the next turn.
The sledge vibrates aggressively as we continue to pick up speed. Another turn and another clash of helmets. Despite the ferocity of everything going on around me, it dawns on me that I’m not scared. Stuck here, in this terrifically violent 70mph ride down a tube of ice, there is no fear. In it’s place, exhilaration. My senses are screaming. This is fun. Breathless, violent fun.
We smash into a series of linked turns. My head makes the now familiar impact into the walls of the sled. The little I can see of the outside world is now a blur, such is our speed. We roar into one final turn, the noise of the sled on the ice thundering all around us. As we burst out of the turn, the sled starts slowing. I feel the beak beneath us trying to find a hold on the ice. We eventually come to a halt.
"Finally, the awkwardness of the seven strangers rubbing groins with each other can be hilarious"
There’s a moment of silence before an explosion of exuberance and relief falls from all of us aboard. Or, at least the six of us without Olympic hardware to show. Almost as soon as it had begun, the ride was over.
Finally, the awkwardness of the seven strangers rubbing groins with each other in a tiny tube can be hilarious. We fall out of the sled like circus clowns getting out of a car. Breathlessly we celebrate. Nobody says it, but I’m certain we’re celebrating surviving.
There’s a natural euphoria as excess adrenaline courses through my veins. We were six journalists and an Olympian, freshly unpacked from our tiny tin can, but in my mind we were somehow heroic. Victorious.
It wasn’t a victory over the bobsleigh. That was fun. Exciting, exhilarating, nerve shredding, but fun. The victory was over fear. I was wrapped in fear as we sat at the top. Consumed by it. But fear of what?
I didn’t fear the bobsleigh or the track. I don’t think I feared the journey? I’d pretty much accepted death, which relinquished me of that fear. It was the possibilities that scared me. The infinite ways I’d concocted in my own mind for something to go wrong. The uncontrollable. The unknown. And all completely my own creation.
Had I conquered fear? I’m not sure, but I’d certainly resisted it, if not wholly mastered it. I wonder if Mark Twain would approve.