Remember the underdog Jamaican four-man bobsled team in Calgary's 1988 Olympics? They captured our hearts despite not finishing after loosing control and crashing during a run. In 1992 in Albertville, France they finished poorly again, but they qualified in 1994 for Lillehammer, Norway where, to world amazement, they captured 14th place, ahead of powerful USA, Russia, France and Italy, thus inspiring the motion picture, Cool Running, with John Candy as the team coach.
I reminisce while perched atop a long, concrete platform that overlooks the start of Whistler's daunting four-man World Cup bobsled race, an Olympic preview. Mesmerized, I stare at one of the foreign athletes, wearing a skin-tight racing suit, totally oblivious to me, while he methodically practices an intricate imaginary run, deliberately twisting and turning his upper body, arms and head left and right to match each turn. As the P.A. announcer calls out a finish time and another team gets ready to start, this contestant carefully repeats the procedure, then walks over to the platform's edge to observe the next team race down the icy course, systematically jump into their craft and disappear into the first turn. Then, he returns for yet another bout of visualization, psyched from what he has witnessed.
From the same height advantage of the platform, I peer at racing teams below in a
fenced off area. They work diligently on their sleds, turned upside down and resting on standards that expose silver-coloured runners which they rub enthusiastically with secret ingredients to foster greater speed for the course.
Speed is not an issue to worry about here at The Whistler Sliding Centre, fastest track in the world and so demanding that Canadian skeleton racer, Jon Montgomery, claims that it gives him headaches he encounters nowhere else. He vividly describes Whistler's experience as akin to being thrown into a washing machine, and colleague, Terry Holland, Australia's women's coach, compares it to an elevator shaft with ice.
At the Sliding Centre's first World Cup, I watch the four-man teams, featuring most athletes who will be back in 2010 for the Winter Olympics. The 1,450 metre track for bobsled and skeleton and men's singles luge features 16 turns. For women's singles and men's doubles luge, the track drops two turns and decreases its length to 1,198 metres. In March, international athletes, coaches and technical officials met here to certify the track.
In my mind, all of these strange athletes, in groups of two or four or singles racing head first or feet first are simply crazy. Alexsandr Zubkov's Russian team suffered concussions in a nasty accident. Canada's Pierre Lueders, all time most decorated driver , flipped twice, not repeated in the last eight years. Again, he crashed in November on corner 7, dubbed "Lueder's Loop." The track mercilessly catapults its sleds into speeds of 150 km/h, creating an incredible five G's supersonic force that participants must survive.
Apparently, the international certification team relented a tad and rendered the course somewhat safer by opening curves and making transitions easier at corners 4 and 7 which were flattened. Nevertheless, racers entertain an honest anxiety at Whistler unlike Calgary, a course that is considered "tame" in comparison. In the four-man, you must ride and steer a 630-kilogram sled that speedily sails along the ice. Today, drivers experience problems in turns 3, 4 and 5. Lueders estimates that the women's sleds will hit 144 km/h and the four-man sleds 150 km/h, enough indeed to rival St. Moritz as fastest of the World Cup circuit.
Canada's Lueders enjoys a secret weapon for the 2010 Olympics, a newly designed sled christened the "Whistler Bomber," which he co-designed with engineers from Bombardier and the National Research Council. Teams like to cover their hi-tech sleds after they have prepared them, not allowing rivals to get too close a look-see.
The 38-year-old pilot from Edmonton will also enjoy home field advantage at Whistler where it's easier to experiment and practise leading up to 2010, whereas other teams will not be allowed many runs here prior to the Olympic event. His new sled was tested in a wind tunnel and wedged full of sensors to measure G-loads and vibrations in order to provide the slightest edge needed for a third Olympic medal.
I watch, sleds corkscrew down the 152-metre course, punctuated abruptly with hellish turns that deliver G-loads equivalent to that encountered in a space launch. Competitors struggle with a sharp left-hand Turn 13, which leads to a horseshoe curve that rudely slingshots them to the finish line. They dub it "the 50-50!" as in "what are our chances?" Lyndon Rush of Humboldt Saskatchewan, (ranked 13th in the two-man sled) claims it's "faster than any other track in the world...real technical at the top and speedy and then open at the bottom." The track's 152 metre drop is the largest in the world.
Not only do I remember the Jamaicans, but I also recall the "crazy Canuks," our rambunctious skiers who loved to race full speed down slopes with little caution in an all-or-nothing approach to Alpine skiing that produced unbridled excitement and some horrendous crashes. Let's hope that Lueders and the other four qualifying Canadian sleds (two of them, women) perform well in 2010. The Whistler Sliding Centre venue will not only be a test of skill, but thanks to engineers, also a test of superior technology, and don't think that other Western teams are without their own wind tunnels and scientists. Jamaicans? They don't even enjoy the luxury of snow!
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
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