Winter Olympics: Skeleton

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Face first down an icy track

by Gerry Brown and Christine Frantz

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Did You Know?

American Jennison Heaton won the first skeleton gold medal in 1928, beating his brother John, who took the silver, by one second. A 39-year-old John Heaton would win the silver again in 1948 finishing second to Italy's Nino Bibbia.


Skeleton made its Olympic return in 2002 after a 54-year absence. Like luge, the sport involves racing a sled down an icy track. Unlike luge, skeleton sleds are ridden face first.

The sport got its name after its first participant crashed horribly and all that was recovered was his skeleton. Just kidding! Here's the real story: the sport was named when someone commented that a new metal sled, first used in 1892, resembled a skeleton.

The sport's first organized competition took place in the late 1800s in the Swiss village of St. Moritz. Riders raced down the frozen road from St. Moritz to Celerina on simple sleds, and the winner received a bottle of champagne.

It was at the 1928 St. Moritz Winter Games that skeleton made its Olympic debut. But the sport would not reappear until the 1948 Winter Games, which were also held in St. Moritz. Then—just as suddenly—skeleton went back in the closet again until its 2002 reemergence.

Previously a male-only endeavor at the Olympics, women's skeleton appeared for the first time in 2002 at Salt Lake City.

The format for Olympic skeleton involves two timed runs. The top men and women from the first run compete in the second run, which is held later that same day. The combined time of the two runs determines the final standings.

The sled can only be ridden in the prone position (face first, on the stomach), and although the rider can leave the sled to push or move it, he or she must cross the finish line on the sled in order for the run to be considered valid.

Warming the sled's metal runners or using any substance that improves sliding is prohibited. At the start of the race, the temperature of the runners must be within 4°C of the reference runner, which is exposed to the open air for one hour before the start of the competition.

Jim Shea, who joined his father and grandfather to make up the first family with three generations of Winter Olympians, won't be returning to the Olympics to repeat his 2002 gold medal performance. U.S. women Tristan Gale and Lea Ann Parsley, the 2002 gold and silver medalists, are hoping to join the squad once again.

The U.S. skeleton team hit some speed bumps on the road to Torino in late 2005 and early 2006. U.S. skeleton coach Jim Nardiello was suspended over sexual harassment allegations. An arbitrator found no evidence supporting the claims and he was reinstated as the coach of the U.S. women's skeleton team. He is not, however, allowed to join the team at the Olympics. Slider Zach Lund tested positive for finasteride, a drug that can be taken to mask the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Lund insisted he uses finasteride to stem hair loss. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency required him to forfeit his silver medal from a November World Cup race. He will be banned from competition for one year (including the 2006 Olympic Games) and it looks like Lund will be going bald.

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