Bobsled generally doesn’t rank highly among sports one may consider accessible to youth.
Facilities are limited, the cost of equipment is prohibitive and the sport traditionally requires at least one teammate.
Bobsled federations around the world hope to ease some of those concerns and aid in the development of young bobsledders — and drivers in particular — with the introduction of monobob competition at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games in February.
“The whole concept is to develop driving skills without the cost or need for others,” said Nicola Minichiello, who is organizing all the youth events and competitions for the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation. “The monobob concept is about finding a way to help people get involved in the sport and to make it easier.”
The sleds weigh about 165 kilograms, or about 365 pounds, Minichiello said, and are only 5 kilograms lighter than traditional two-person sleds. They are slightly shorter than traditional sleds and, unlike two- and four-person teams, one person is responsible for pushing, driving and breaking in a monobob.
The response, Minichiello said, has been wonderful.
Last season, 32 athletes ages 14 to 16 from nine countries competed in the OMEGA FIBT Youth Monobob & Skeleton Series, she said.
Following the third and final race of the first-ever monobob series in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 2014-15, the women’s overall winner was Annabel Chaffey of Great Britain; her teammate Kelsea Purchall came in second and Valentina Bologova of Russia was third.
The men’s overall victory went to Russia’s Maksim Ivanov, followed by George Johnson of Great Britain in second and Norway’s Kristian Olsen in third.
Fifty athletes from 15 nations are currently involved in the Winter Youth Olympic Games qualification series that began this weekend in Calgary. Between now and the first week of January there will be seven races — two in North American and five in Europe — to determine which athletes qualify to compete in February. Athletes will accumulate points, and the top 15 boys and top 15 girls worldwide will qualify for the Games.
To facilitate the program, the IBSF purchased 30 monobobs and is providing them for competition so that everyone is using the same equipment.
“Everybody has the exact same kit, therefore it makes it easier, safer and fairer,” said Minichiello, who competed in bobsled in three Winter Games for Great Britain.
Each nation may enter a maximum of three boys and three girls. The United States had three boys and two girls competing in Calgary. In order to get involved, athletes are selected by their national federations.
Don Hass, the U.S. youth program director, said the U.S. athletes are all between 15 and 16 years old, from all different parts of the country, and most have been sliding with the junior program for the past two to three years, so the transition to monobob has been fairly easy.
“It’s a very gentle sled to drive, very forgiving, so you can take a kid who’s only been driving a few weeks or a year or two and he or she can learn how to drive fairly quickly,” Hass said. “It definitely helps develop driving skills for the future.”
Even with the lighter weight and increased ease of handling, monobob sleds still reach top speeds of over 130 kilometers per hour (80 miles per hour), about 2-3 seconds slower than a two-person sled, Hass added, furthering its usefulness as a training tool.
Monobo sleds aren’t just for youth in training, either. They will also be used in para-bobsled programs, although the sport doesn’t appear likely to be added to the Olympic or Paralympic Games in the near future.
“It is still in its infancy, for sure, and for the para-athletes this is what they’ll be working with,” Minichiello said. “Long-term it is about development and brining people to the sport in an affordable way. The whole concept is about centralized equipment and how that works, whether that works.”