LAKE PLACID - "You won't believe the sound and speed when you stand there and see the sleds coming by," said John Morgan, former bobsled competitor and a current TV sports producer.
He's referring to seeing world class athletes whiz down the combined track at Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid live in the 2012 FIBT Bob and Skeleton World Championships, which are taking place Feb. 17 through Feb. 26.
The World Championships is the sport's most prestigious competition outside of the Olympics and will feature races in five disciplines: women's bobsled, men's two-man bobsled, men's four-man bobsled and men's and women's skeleton.
Lou Reuter/Lake Placid News file photo
A bobled cruises along the track during the 2009 Bobsled and Skeleton World Championship held in Lake Placid.
Athletes from more than 20 nations are expected to compete in this "pinnacle event of the season," said Scott Novack, high performance director of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, in a press release. "Our athletes and coaches look forward to the opportunity to compete against the world's best, and hope to continue the successful legacy we have on this track."
The current combined track, which was constructed in 1999 and features 20 turns while dropping more than 400 feet, was the site of Lake Placid's 2009 FIBT World Championships.
2009 was not, however, the first time Lake Placid hosted the event. In fact, the World Championships have a deep and rich history in Lake Placid that spans over six decades.
Lake Placid has hosted the FIBT World Championships eight previous times, the first time being in 1949 that was then followed up in 1961, 1969, 1973, 1978, 1983, 2003 and 2009. This year marks the ninth time Lake Placid has hosted the event.
According to Morgan, the only track in the world to host more World Championships is St. Moritz, Switzerland, which is the oldest bobsled track in the world.
"This place has tradition," he said. "What St. Moritz is to Europe, Lake Placid is to North America. The sport has been here since Christmas Day 1930, when they opened the track, and we've got a great legacy and tradition here. There's three, four generations of bobsled enthusiasts here."
Wade Whitney, who competed in World Championships in the 1969 and throughout the 1970s, said he comes from a long line of bobsledders.
"My grandfather was in the '48 Olympics, and my uncle was in the '56 Olympics," he said. "From the time I was old enough to talk about it right through until my grandfather died in '65, it was mostly all we talked about every time we would get together. I was supposed to be the next one."
When Whitney competed in the World Championships he said that there were only two disciplines featured: the men's two-man and men's four-man bobsled.
According to the FIBT website, skeleton was an Olympic sport in 1928 and in 1948 St. Moritz Winter Games, but afterwards fell by the wayside, only to return as an Olympic discipline in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.
"In the 70s, 80s and 90s skeleton was gaining popularity, and now skeleton is a mainstay in the Olympic and World Cup circuit," said Tony Carlino, general manager of the Olympic Sports Complex and former bobsled World Championships competitor.
He said women have a long history in the sport of sliding, as well.
In the earlier days of the sport, women had a place in the sled at five-person bobsled competitions.
"If you look at the history, Katherine Dewey, from Lake Placid, was a U.S. National Champion, and that's when they would have a woman and four men on a sled," Carlino said. "And then the men said, 'Hey, we're just going to have 4-men bobsleds, to heck with this women stuff. That's the true story."
Women began to officially compete in FIBT races in 1998 with 2000 being the first year that the women's bobsled was featured in the World Championships. The women's bob becoming an Olympic sport in 2002, according to the FIBT website.
Carlino said there's no women's four-man bobsled discipline as of yet.
"It's to be continued," he said. "As the women's sport evolves, so too will they start driving four-man. There are many women now who could, but there would have to be enough nations to make it an event."
Bobsled crews tended to be on the "heavier side" weight-wise up until the 1952 Olympics when the four-man German bobsled team, whose total weight was 472 kg, won the gold medal.
The German's sled was so much more heavier than its competitors that it was believed they had an unfair advantage, and therefore, weight limits were put into effect soon after.
The maximum weight a crew and sled can be is as follows: 390 kilos for a two-man sled, 340 kilos for a two-woman sled and 630 kilos for a four-man sled, according to Carlino.
He described today's sliding athletes as "magnificent."
"The athletes since the 1976 Olympics, that's when the sport changed to having top world class sprinters and decathletes and football players come into the sport," Morgan said. "Before that it pretty much wasn't a world class athlete emphasize as there is now."
Morgan said bobsled athlete changes were a result from track changes.
Before the 1960s tracks used to be made by using ice blocks and slush and scraped smooth, since they weren't refrigerated back then.
"Natural ice was really bumpy ice, so the start was not that important, driving down the track was more important," Morgan said. "Now the start is the most important element of the sport. That's the only acceleration you got. Once you get in there than Mother Nature and gravity take over."
It's said that bobsled races can be lost in the initial push, but are rarely won there.
"It's a big misconception that it's not the guy who drives the most that wins," Morgan said. "It's the guy or girl who drives it the least because because every time you steer, that's friction slowing yourself down. The people who don't steer out here going 80 miles an hour, they've got to be pretty brave."
"Winter sports tend to be speed dangerous sports," Carlino said.
Whitney recalled some of the accidents he saw on the track during his competitive bobsledding days, a bad one being at the 1971 World Championships at Cervinia, Italy.
"It was my first World Championship (in 1971) and I think it was the third day of practice, and we followed Spain," he said. "We talked to the brakeman of the Spaniard team before they (the crew) left the top, and they went out of the finish turn and he was killed. Here I was 23-years-old and having to see that, and I said then, 'I survived that World Championship.' There were so many people hurt; it was just a bloodbath."
"In the old days the sleds didn't have pods and they didn't have sides, so when you crashed it was just the man and the mountain," Carlino said. "They used to put on arm pads and leather pads on, the whole thing, and when you hit the wall, the man hit it, now it's just the side of the sled."
Bobsleds have evolved from toboggan-like sleds to sophisticated, aerodynamic sleds made out of light metals and steel runners, all of which is highly regulated.
Stringent regulations are also in place for skeleton sleds as well, according to Carlino.
"The late 70s, early 80s is when sled technology improved greatly," he said. "And then they started standardizing and not allowing safety to fall by the wayside for new technology."
Standardization also helps to ensure a level playing field.
"For instance, how could a minor nation compete with the big nations if technology was not controlled?" Carlino asked. "You'd have no chance. It's like driving a Model T against a Ferrari."
In the past people would come in droves to the see all the action at the World Championships.
"I can remember we went through the finish turn, which is a beautiful turn, that was my most favorite turn on that track (Konigssee, West Germany, 1979), we came out and the sled stops right out of that turn," Whitney said. "We're working to get out of it, and finally, I got where I could get my head up and the minute my head went where the people saw me, they started cheering. You know, there was over 5,000 people on that finish turn."
Morgan said past World Championships used to draw on average 5,000 to 8,000 spectators.
"We're trying to draw huge crowds like in the past," said Carlino. "The sport isn't as regional as it used to be. There used to be dozens of clubs in the Adirondacks - Elizabethtown, Lake Placid, Plattsburgh, Keene, Keene Valley, Saranac Lake - so it drew a big fanbase, but the sport is more national now, so we don't really quite have that cult fanbase we used to. And then there's so many other activities that we're competing against, but we hope to draw big crowds."
For those who can't make it to the World Championships the competition will be televised on NBC Universal Sports on the following dates and EST times: Women's bobsled at 10 p.m. on Feb. 18, men's two-man bobsled at 6 p.m. on Feb. 19, team competition at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 23, women's skeleton at 6 p.m. on Feb. 24, men's skeleton at 10 p.m. on Feb. 25 and men's four-man bobsled at 6 p.m. on Feb. 25.
However, Morgan said, "TV doesn't do it justice."
Contact Margaret Moran at 518-523-4401 or at email@example.com