Trip report: BMW IBSF World Cup at Lake Placid

Here’s a different kind of trip report. On Thursday, November 9, I attended the BMW IBSF Bob + Skeleton World Cup races at the Olympic Sports Center in Lake Placid, New York, site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. The conditions were quite chilly on Thursday, but very good for racing on an artificial ice track — according to the TV commentary I watched after the event, it was an amazing turn-around from the previous weekend when late-season rain washed out the track. I bought tickets for both Thursday and Friday (an excellent deal at $28 total) but when Friday’s weather turned out windy with highs in the low teens Fahrenheit (around −8°C), I bailed on the second day of competition and drove back home. I did see the events I was most interested in seeing, the women’s skeleton and bobsled, as well as the first race of men’s two-man bob. (Because of the track conditions, day 2’s four-man bobsled race was swapped with next week’s scheduled two-man race in Park City, Utah, so there were two two-man races in Lake Placid and two four-man races in Park City. The first race on Friday morning, which I would have gone to see had the weather been a bit nicer, was men’s skeleton.)

There are only four sanctioned bobsled tracks in North America, at each of the last four Winter Olympic venues: Lake Placid and Park City in the U.S. and Calgary and Whistler in Canada. Lake Placid is the site of the U.S. Olympic Training Center, and also the only track within reasonable driving distance of my home outside Boston — but the Lake Placid Combined Track, which is the facility currently in use, was built after the 1980 Winter Olympics. (The old track, known as the “1932–1980 track”, is no longer used for competition.) It’s called the “Combined Track” because, unlike the previous track, it’s approved for all three of the Olympic sliding sports: bobsled, skeleton, and luge. (Skeleton was not on the Olympic program in 1980 when the old track was in use.) The Combined Track is kept open for as long as weather conditions allow, which gives many teams and the general public an opportunity to use it after the competitive season is over, meaning that many non-U.S. athletes have experience training at Lake Placid. (And I’m sorely tempted to sign up for the “Skeleton Experience”, which for a modest fee gives ordinary people the opportunity to slide a skeleton sled down the track from Start 4, which is about halfway up the track, when the track is not otherwise in use for training or competitions.)

The sliding sports are biggest in the German-speaking countries, Latvia, and Russia, and nearly all of the on-track advertising erected for the international broadcasts is from German and Russian advertisers, notably the title sponsor BMW, whose logo is seen on all bobsleds, helmets, and skeletoners’ race bibs. Teams also have a variety of national sponsors, and some individual athletes have their own sponsors, especially those from small countries. (The track announcer said that one British bobsleigh driver was told by her federation that she had to raise £30,000 to compete this year — which she raised from individual donors on GoFundMe!) The differences in national support also mean that some teams travel with few or no support personnel; when I post the photos of the bobsled events, you’ll see how some of the poorer teams have nobody at the race finish area to help the athletes pull their sleds off the track.

As I mentioned, there are three sliding sports: bobsled (“bobsleigh” in the Commonwealth countries), skeleton, and luge. Bobsled and skeleton are governed by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF); luge has a different governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Luge (FIL), and thus a separate competition schedule; I won’t have much more to say about it, and don’t plan to go back to Lake Placid for the luge competition in December. The IBSF is one of a number of sports federations that in recent years has changed its name from French to English; while still based on Lausanne, Switzerland, it used to be called the Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et Tobogganing (FIBT), and the change is recent enough that there is still ephemera in circulation with the old name. The IBSF manages four international skeleton circuits, of which the World Cup is the top level, followed by the Inter-Continental Cup, and at the lowest level, the Europa Cup and the North American Cup. Bobsled has three circuits; as a team sport, it requires more competitors from each national program, so there is no intermediate level corresponding to the ICC.

Because 2018 is an Olympic year, the IBSF schedule is compressed, with all of the World Cup events completed before the PyeongChang Olympics begin in mid-February. Like most other top-level international winter sports circuits, the IBSF World Cup awards points to each competitor (skeleton athlete or bobsled driver) on the basis of their standing in each race, with an overall season points winner awarded a “crystal globe”. In a pre-Olympic season, the World Cup points are also used to determine which national teams get to compete at the Olympics, and how many competitors they can enter in each race; many national teams will also use the points total to determine which of their athletes will compete in the Olympics. (In regular years, the World Cup standings also determine the number of entries each national team gets in the following year’s World Cup season, and the position in the starting-order drawing for each individual athlete or driver.) This means that a number of national teams that normally can’t afford to bring their athletes to the North American stops on the World Cup are doing so this year in the hope of earning a place in the Olympics, so there were more competitors than usual in the first heat of each race. (Both bob and skeleton are normally two-heat races, with start order in heat 2 the reverse of the heat 1 times and the winner determined by total time; only the top 20 finishers in heat 1 make the cut for heat 2 and have the chance to earn World Cup points.)

Lake Placid is a really small town — technically, a “village” in New York law — and 1980 was the last time the Winter Olympics were ever (or will ever be) held in so small a community. While Lake Placid still has all of the sports facilities required to host an Olympics, it is far behind modern requirements for communications and transportation infrastructure, not to mention accommodations for athletes and media, and Adirondack Park is subject to strict limits on development. Lake Placid is a fine place for a competition at this level, however, even if it means that the athletes are staying in the same budget hotels as the spectators. (The Austrian team was in the Quality Inn where I stayed, and not only did I run into them at breakfast, but I saw their technicians working on their sleds in a room in the basement next to the hotel’s laundry. I was told by the hotel manager that the Austrian team comes every year for World Cup, but they also had two smaller teams staying this year.)

I’ll have more to say about the individual races when I post my photos of them. In the mean time, I’ll conclude this part of my report with some pictures of the Lake Placid Combined Track itself. According to the TV announcers, the track saw significant work over the summer of 2017, including improvements to the refrigeration system and construction of a new shelter at the finish area; it also appears that the facility roadways have been improved by adding a new paved road connecting the management offices, finish, and start areas; spectators desiring to climb to the start area do so via the old road, which they share with track maintenance workers and a few athletes warming up. (In general, I was quite surprised by how close athletes and spectators get at this event; you’ll see more of this in later posts.)

Facility offices
Track substructure
Refrigerant pipes
Refrigerant tank

In the photo below, looking down from the end of the run-out towards the finish area, you can see the new shelter (white metal structure). Beyond that is where the track makes a big loop (also painted white). Off in the distance is the visitor parking lot.
New shelter over finish area

Bobsleds and skeleton sleds come into the finish area with an enormous amount of momentum and require a very long run-out after the finish line to come to a stop. In the next two photos, you can see how far uphill the sleds run before stopping, after crossing the finish line at more than 100 km/h. In the second photo, I’m looking very far down towards the bobsled finish line — the skeleton finish is even lower down the hill, if I’m interpreting the TV pictures correctly. Sleds that run into trouble don’t generally don’t make it all the way up the run-out to the finish area; the building on the left beyond the parked cars is just above the bobsled finish.
Looking up the run-out
Looking back down toward the finish line

Now up by the start house, which is divided into “VIP” and “plebe” sides — the VIPs mix with the athletes and race officials on the right-hand side of the track, facing downward, and the rest of us are on the left side. (However, with the reduced crowds on frigid Friday, I saw from the TV broadcast that the Russian women were standing on the “plebe” side to cheer on their male counterparts who were racing that day, so I’m making it sound more classist than it really is.)
Start area

There are temporary video monitors set up at the start and finish areas so that competitors, coaches, race officials, and spectators can watch (but not hear) the TV broadcast. There’s a separate on-track commentary from a local announcer which is broadcast from speakers mounted all around the track; the local announcer also provides schedule information for competitors, spectators, and maintenance crews.
Athletes' side of start area

The darker ice at the far end isn’t actually darker, it’s just an effect of different light conditions heading into the first curve on the track.
Looking down the track toward curve 1
Old road past the start houses

A few pictures of the infrastructure brought in to support the broadcasts. IBSF handles all of the broadcast production for the World Cup events, with English-language commentary and “international” feeds made available to broadcasters; the English feed is streamed live on the IBSF’s YouTube account, where recorded broadcasts are also found, but final runs are geoblocked for US viewers to ensure that we see NBC’s advertising (with some of the competitors edited out for time).
Water for track touch-up
Very chilly tower camera position
Tower camera operator
Camera position at the end of the run-out
Remote camera encoder
Camera mounted over track
Microphone for track sound pickup

I’ll follow up as soon as I’m able with photos of the competitors from each of the events I attended.

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