Skeleton Barrels Back into Olympics

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When he talks about his sport now, it's as if he's speaking of the Rosetta Stone—an artifact that has been unearthed, studied, and is only now starting to be comprehended.

Recovering a Lost Art

Invented by British tourists in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1884, skeleton is considered the first organized sliding sport. The first bobsled was simply two skeletons lashed together.

An earlier form of skeleton was a part of the two St. Moritz Winter Games—in 1928 and 1948—with Americans taking three of the six medals.

But over generations, the science of skeleton was lost in the haze of history. The sport faded entirely from North America and clung only to a few European clubs in countries such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Even the origin of the name "skeleton" was lost—although most believe it comes from the fact that the early frame sleds looked like skeletons.

It wasn't until the early 1980s, when a couple of travelers from upstate Vermont visited Europe and saw the modern version of skeleton, that it returned to the United States. For years, though, even the most basic information—like how to steer—remained a mystery.

"When we started, we provided comic relief for the Europeans," says Terry Holland, a coach of the U.S. Olympic team, who began sliding in 1982. "For all the violence, it really is a subtle sport."

Dewitt acknowledges that he went through his entire first year on the skeleton circuit without really knowing how to maneuver his sled. "Whenever you saw someone who knew something about skeleton, you'd ask, 'How do you make the sled do this, or turn to the right?'" he says.

Now, after experimentation and interrogation, such knowledge is more widespread: Sleds can be guided with pressure applied by the shoulders or thighs, as well as by dragging the feet—though that is a last resort, since it slows the slider down.

"We can teach someone something in three weeks that took us three years to figure out," adds Holland.

Copyright 2002 The Christian Science Monitor

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