The inside view on the art of bobsleigh
What does it take to succeed in bobsleigh, a sport in which pilots guide their sleds at dizzying speeds between walls of ice and the pushers behind them use brute force to get the sled moving before crouching as low as they can to reduce drag? One man who can answer that question better than most is Germany's Francesco Friedrich, who swept all before him at PyeongChang 2018 and maintained his momentum in the year that followed.
Friedrich continued his imperious form after collecting both Olympic golds on offer to him at PyeongChang 2018. As well as winning eight two-man World Cup events in a row from Sigulda (LAT) on 8 December 2018 to Calgary (CAN) on 23 February 2019, the German pilot also claimed four four-man victories and seven podium finishes to end the season on top in both standings.
Just for good measure, he also won his fifth IBSF World Championship two-man title with Thorsten Margis at the Whistler Sliding Centre (CAN) and his second straight four-man crown with the same line-up that had propelled him to gold in PyeongChang: Margis, Candy Bauer and Martin Grothkopp.
While Friedrich’s sustained run of success is indicative of his brilliance as a pilot, there is more to his winning streak than that, as Normunds Kotans, the PyeongChang 2018 Track and Sliding Sports Manager, explained to the Olympic Channel: “It’s interesting to see that it’s not necessarily the best pilot or the best pusher or even the team with the best equipment that wins. You need a combination of all of that. It’s not easy to bring all those elements together and you need a little bit of luck too.”
The job of a bobsleigh pilot is not unlike that of a conductor. Using visualisation techniques to picture each and every corner on the descent, they must ensure that every team member times their movements to perfection and works together as one.
Explaining the mechanics of a bobsleigh team, Brazil coach Shauna Rohbock, a former Olympic silver medallist with the USA, said: “Before the race, it’s the pushers who are the most pumped up and the pilot who’s the calmest. But when they start pushing, they have to switch from rock ‘n’ roll to classical music because you have to be electric at the start and then relaxed. What follows is like a dance on the track.”
As for the young Chinese pilot Shao Yijun, who came in 26th in the four-man bob at PyeongChang 2018, his coaches Heath Spencer and Manuel Machata are convinced he will soon be among the best in the world, given his rate of progress. “To my mind bobsleigh is all about racing, speed, the adrenaline rush, the camaraderie in the team, competition, and the friendship off the track with the other nations,” said Spencer. “They’ll be on top in four years’ time. They’re brilliant, young and enthusiastic and they want to learn.”
The PyeongChang 2018 bobsleigh competitions came to an end with the last two runs of the four-man competition, held on the same day as the Closing Ceremony. On a podium topped by Friedrich and his crew, a Republic of Korea team led by Won Yun-jong shared silver with Germany’s Nico Walter, whose quartet featured the 39-year-old Kevin Kuske, pushing for the very last time in his career. That silver was the sixth of Kuske’s Olympic career, a superb haul that includes four titles and has made him the most decorated athlete in Olympic bobsleigh’s 94-year history.