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5 Facts About Skeleton, the Most Mysterious Winter Olympics Sport

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Skeleton is an apt name for what looks like the most terrifying Winter Olympics event. But despite the confusing name, the sport is pretty simple: Racers take a running start, and then hurtle down an icy track on a sled. Oh, and they do it headfirst.
While we know what to expect when it comes to events like skiing or figure skating, skeleton is still a mystery, even to many avid Olympics watchers. Below, we've rounded up what you need to know about the sport—so you don't have to waste time Googling as you watch the Games.

1. Skeleton and luge are siblings but not twins.

Both luge and skeleton require riders to dash down an ice track. Both are single-person sports, but skeleton has one key difference: Riders race headfirst, with both face and feet lifted just millimeters off the track. Luge riders go down feet first. A skeleton sled weights about 70 pounds and has no brakes or steering mechanism—it's simply a metal frame covered with carbon fiber—which forces the rider to steer with just her body. The good news? Both sports require helmets.

2. Skeleton is much more complicated than just throwing yourself down a hill.

OK, at the end of the day, it is technically throwing yourself down a hill. But sliders train to give themselves advantages, which are crucial as races are usually won by a few hundredths of a second. Sliders take a running start of about 50 meters before hopping onto the sled. The speed of the sprint is important, because it helps athletes build momentum to race down the track even faster.

To get in position on the sled, sliders tuck their chins as close to the ice as possible without actually resting on the ground, all while having to look up to see in front of them. “It’s really uncomfortable,” skeleton athlete Katie Tannenbaum told The New York Times. “Try doing it for more than a few seconds.” To steer, athletes adjust their knees and shoulders, which alters their center of gravity and slightly shifts the board. But since any change in momentum will slow down the sled, it's best to steer as little as possible.

3. The sport was invented in Switzerland.

Skeleton was born in the winter sport mecca of St. Moritz, Switzerland. According to Thrillist, the creepy-sounding name may come from the fact that the sled is so thin that it resembles an actual human skeleton. The first skeleton track (also in Switzerland, of course) was built in 1884, but the sport didn't enter the winter Olympics until the St. Moritz games in 1928. It's only been a permanent Olympic event since the Salt Lake City games in 2002.

4. To win, you just have to cross the finish line first.

Unlike the complicated scoring system involved in figure skating or moguls skiing, the winner in a skeleton race is simply the person with the fastest time. Since timing usually comes down to hundredths of a second, sliders do everything they can to sprint quickly at the beginning and avoid steering shifts throughout. An entire skeleton ride is typically less than a minute, so the phrase "every second counts" means everything to these athletes.

5. The U.S. has won the most skeleton medals of any country.

Twenty-one nations sent skeleton teams to the 2018 Winter Olympics. Seven of those nations (Belgium, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Netherlands, Nigeria, and Ukraine) are first-time Olympic skeleton entrants. As for Team USA, Thrillist reports that we have the most Olympic medals in skeleton of any country competing—eight in total, three of which are gold.

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