The Cresta is like a woman, with this cynical difference - to love her once is to love her always.
A 'bobsled' is so named because early racers bobbed their heads back and forth to gain speed (which didn't work).
Competitive bobsleigh was developed by British tourists in St Moritz in the late nineteenth century, as were luge (where you travel face-up, feet first) and the skeleton bob (face-down, head first). Swiss hotelier Caspar Badrutt built the first half-pipe bobsleigh course in response to complaints from pedestrians who felt threatened by the Englishmen hurtling around the streets of St. Moritz on modified delivery sleighs. In the early days of the sport there were claims that it was invented by Julius Caesar, who trained his legions to slide down the Alps on their shields, steering with their spears; it's sheer fantasy, of course.
The legendary St Moritz Cresta or 'skeleton' run was first built in 1884-5 by British military officers and is rebuilt every year. To this day, women are barred from the full three-quarter-mile run, having to start halfway down. In the final years of the 19th century (before cars and planes) Cresta riders were the fastest men on Earth.
There is a brake on a bobsleigh (a jagged metal bar), but you’re liable to disqualification if you use it during your run, as it damages the track – it’s only used after the finish. As last man to jump aboard, the brakeman is usually the strongest and fastest athlete of the four, and so his job is actually to accelerate, hopefully faster than anyone else. During the run the driver is responsible for steering a good line; all the others can do once they’re aboard is remain motionless in an aerodynamically efficient position.
The 1993 film Cool Runnings notwithstanding, Jamaica was not the only Caribbean bobsleigh team at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. They weren’t even the best; in the two-man bobsleigh event they were pushed into 30th place by the Netherlands Antilles (there was also a US Virgin Islands team, which came last). In the four-man event Jamaica famously crashed out and walked the rest of the course, though they didn’t carry their sleigh down the course funeral style to a slow clap as in the film. Another inaccuracy in the film is that coach Irv Blitzer, played by John Candy, is ostracized in the bobsleigh world because he cheated by adding weights to a sleigh; in fact this is normal practice, up to a prescribed limit. A heavier sleigh is faster, though harder to push.
The idea for a Jamaican bobsleigh team came from two Americans who took their idea to Colonel Ken Barnes (John Barnes’ dad) after watching a pushcart derby; the team was recruited from the army. Because of an injury, driver Dudley Stokes’ brother Chris was brought in at the last minute, having never seen a bobsleigh until three days before competing. East Germany were the favourites but lost out to the USSR; their driver, Wolfgang Hoppe, laid some of the blame on novice crews damaging the track.
Jamaica has stuck at bobsleigh with mixed results. In 1994 they came 14th, ahead of the USA and Russia, but they failed to qualify in 2006 or 2010 – though their women’s teams did rather better.
The Cresta Run toboggan track in St Moritz is built from scratch every year.
The last woman to race the Cresta before ladies were banned was one Mrs J.M. Baguley, in 1925.