Why are Great Britain so good at Skeleton?

It is fair to say that when it comes to Olympic success, Great Britain excel in the Summer version of the games. As ice and snow is not readily available in the British Isles it figures that we would not feature highly on the medal table in the Winter Games. Since the introduction of the Summer Olympics, Team GB has won 847 medals, including 263 golds. Quite an amazing achievement! In contrast to our Summer record, the Winter Olympics have provided British athletes with just 26 medals, 10 of which were of the golden variety. Perhaps ice and snow just aren't our thing?


Although the facilities in the UK are not really geared towards success in Winter sports, we do have a number of ice rinks up and down the country. Due to this we have been able to win medals in Figure Skating, Curling, Speed Skating and even Ice Hockey in the early days. Of the 26 medals we have won as a nation, 25 have come on ice, whilst the superb Snowboarding bronze won by Jenny Jones in Sochi 2014, is the only medal ever to be won on snow for Team GB.

 

It is probably now clear that occasionally we manage to win the odd medal here and there at indoor sports as long as they are held on ice. There is one sport though, where in recent years, Team GB have managed to enjoy relative domination. It has now become a sport where a British medal is expected rather than hoped for when the Winter Olympics come around. That sport is the terrifying, but thrilling, Skeleton.

 

For those that don't know, the Skeleton event is similar to the sport of Luge. The main difference is that rather than lie on your back and descend down the track feet first, a Skeleton rider lies on the sled face down and goes down the track head first. Scary stuff! The sport only featured at the Olympics on two occasions in the 1900's, first off in 1928 and then again in 1948, both times in St Mortiz. In '28 and '48, Great Britain secured a bronze medal each time in the Skeleton event courtesy of David Carnegie and John Crammond. There was no women's Skeleton event in those days.

 

Skeleton was re-introduced to the Olympic programme in 2002 with both men's and women's events added. Alex Coomber took bronze in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Shelley Rudman improved on that four years later with a silver medal in Turin. Amy Williams took gold in 2010 and Lizzy Yarnold secured the same medal in 2014 meaning that Team GB had won a medal in Skeleton at every Olympic Games that the sport had featured at. Although the men have not managed to win another Skeleton medal since 1948, the four medals won by the women have accounted for 50% of Team GB's Winter Olympic medal haul this century.

 

Of course the UK has no full length Skeleton track so why have we become so successful at this sport? Two Olympic champions in a row surely can't be a fluke and although the men do not have an Olympic title, Kristan Bromley can boast World Championship, European Championship and World Cup titles. Many people in Britain may never watched a Skeleton race in their life, some won't even know what the sport is and yet it has become the main staple of our Winter Olympic campaigns.  

Prior to the Salt Lake City games Skeleton was only really done recreationally and in the Armed Forces. BAE Systems were asked to build a sled and so they decided to assign one of their students to the project. That student was a man named Kristan Bromley. The sled was very fast and being tested by Bromley himself providing him with valuable experience. It was due to the technology available that Bromley was able to produce a sled that enabled him to win the 1999 World Cup. The sport was then granted Olympic status and due to the success of Bromley and Coomber in the World Cup, UK Sport invested even more money into it.

 

Great Britain were at the forefront of technology when it came to the Skeleton sleds thanks to Bromley. It was a combination of that technology and the ability of Coomber, who has been described as one of the most natural sliders to ever take part in the sport, that produced a bronze medal in the 2002 Olympics. Before these games, in 2001, a push start facility was built at the University of Bath to enable potential Skeleton athletes to use a wheeled sled to practice their sprinting start without the need to jet off to Austria or Switzerland.  A clear long term commitment to the sport in Britain.


Another reason that allows Team GB to compete with other nations in Skeleton is the fact that you cannot legally start the sport until the age of 16. Even if we had the facilities of a full length track in this country, it's not like we could put young children on the sleds and send them down the track to gain a head start in development. All athletes start at age 16 on a level playing field, unlike in Luge where there is no age restriction.

 

Along with a superb talent identification programme that found the likes of Amy Williams and Lizzy Yarnold whilst they were young and identified their potential in the sport, British Skeleton also secured world class coaches. Andi Schmid and Eric Bernotas are just two of the coaches with Skeleton World Championship medals to their name as increases to funding allowed the best coaches to be brought in.

 

With cutting edge technology, a dry push start track, increased funding, top coaches and a talent identification programme it is clear why Great Britain are the main players in the Skeleton scene. Success breeds success and as such, Amy Williams and Lizzy Yarnold have no doubt already inspired the next generation of British Skeleton athletes but who are they? The truth is there are many and as the 2016/17 season has only just started, GB has many young hopefuls aiming to make a name for themselves. Madelaine Smith, Eleanor Furneaux and Brogan Crowley could all be future stars on the women's side, whilst names such as Marcus Wyatt and Tim Hull will be ones to watch for the men. All of those athletes, among others, have been named in the GB Europa Cup squad for this season with many making their debuts in what is an exciting time for GB Skeleton.

This season will be interesting for Team GB as we are now just 15 months away from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The good news is that Lizzy Yarnold is hopping back on to her sled for the forthcoming World Cup campaign and will join teammates Laura Deas, Dom Parsons and Jack Thomas on the ice. Of course with the Intercontinental and Europa Cup squads also being so strong, Olympic selection could prove interesting and with Ashleigh Pittaway winning Skeleton gold at the 2016 Youth Olympics, the future looks encouragingly bright.  


In Pyeongchang, Yarnold will have the chance, if selected, to be the first person to ever win two Olympic gold medals in the sport of Skeleton. Personally I would love Yarnold to achieve that and then see her pass the torch onto one of the many rising stars that Britain are currently developing. It is clear that by focussing on the right areas Great Britain can be a success at winter sports but the funding and the talent identification has to be there. With Skeleton the balance is right and it has proved highly successful. The challenge will be whether that same success can be carried over to other sports such as Bobsleigh where although we are highly competitive, we are not at the levels of the Skeleton team in terms of success. GB Skeleton should be applauded for the effort that everybody puts in to winning races at Olympic, World, European and Youth level. It is a terrifying sport that only a few will be gutsy enough to try, but here we are in Britain without a full length track and we are the best. We must be doing more than just a couple of things right.

 

 

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