Switzerland: Bobsleigh History

Comments 8 by Rebecca Bollwitt

This fall I received the best bobsleigh history lesson in the world from locals in St Moritz while on a media trip as a guest of the Swiss National Tourist Office.

After a walking tour of the town we stopped by the Cresta Run, then over to the Bob Run, after which the sport is named.

St Moritz

Birth of the Winter Sport
2010 marks the 125th anniversary of the Cresta Run in St Moritz, Switerzland. Back in 1885 tobogganing made its way there from Britain and people began to flock to the friendly winter destination to participate in the sport.

The Cresta Run itself is a 3,978 foot long natural ice run down the side of a mountain for tobogganing (or skeleton as many know it from the Olympics). Whether it was the head-first skeleton or the luge race, both evolved from “steerable sledding” that was invented by snowbird British guests at the St Moritz hotel, Kulm in 1870. Over on the Cresta run you can reach speeds of up to 140km/h on the track that has been carved over the last century. Originally designed to entertain and carry adventurously wealthy tourists, it soon became quite the competitive sport.

St Moritz - Bobsleigh

The Cresta Run is owned and operated by the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC), also referred to as the Cresta Club which has been all-male since founded by the British Military in 1885. Women have never been allowed to sled down the Cresta Run and from what our guide told us, the excuses were many. Anything from it was too dangerous to telling them that laying on their front to head down the runs would give them breast cancer.

Rumour has it though that some ladies have managed to make it down over the years by cross-dressing, but that’s simply local folklore at this point.

St Moritz - Bobsleigh

The Bob Run
You take two toboggans, tie them together, add a steering mechanism and grab a couple of your friends and you have a bobsleigh. Since toboganning became such a hit, another run was built in St Moritz — the Bob Run.

St Moritz - Bobsleigh

Now according to most definitions, the sport is called bobsledding because you watch the riders’ heads bob as they go down the run. Alternatively, our St Moritz guide told us that a man named Robert (Bob) started up the Bob Run (his own run) across from the Cresta Run as a haven for those who wanted to tie their sleds together. Hence that new sled was called the bobsleigh, named after the run and thus named after a man called Bob.

I haven’t found anything online to back this up so I’m not sure if our guide was just having a bit of fun with us or if I might be documenting this for the first time. Regardless of its etymology, the world’s first bobsleigh club was formed in 1897 at the Bob Run in St Moritz.

St Moritz - Bobsleigh

With longer sleds emerging with spots for two or four men the Bob Run became the longest, fastest and only natural bobsleigh run in the world. Natural means that each and every winter the build up that non-refrigerated, u-shaped run down the side of the hill using tools, manpower, and only the snow and ice that surrounds them.

St Moritz - Bobsleigh

From where we stood after our walk over from the village, the Bob Run is basically “across the street” and up a hill from the Cresta Run. It’s not only the home of bobsleigh but also the site of the St Moritz Winter Olympics ceremonies in 1928 and 1948. Bobsleigh appeared in the first Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924.

The men who build the Bob Run each year aren’t even bobsledders themselves, however we were told they are very proud to be a part of such a momentous annual event, which is so important to the world of winter sports. When we visited in November 2009 they were merely weeks away from starting the year’s build, which would take about 3 weeks in total to complete.

St Moritz - Bobsleigh

The photo above shows the official starting place of the Bob Run so as you can see, they really do build it all from scratch with fresh snow and ice each winter. The photo below is the opposite view of that starting point.

St Moritz - Bobsleigh

Little-known bobsleigh fact, the brake man only does his job at the very end of the course — at no other time are the brakes used on the bobsleigh except to actually stop it. At the end of the season (usually around March) the run is so cutup from sleigh after sleigh that before they tear down the track some folks are actually allowed to ice skate down it. Sort of like the Red Bull Crashed Ice event each year in Quebec City.

St Moritz - Bobsleigh

Traditions and Oddities
The St. Moritz Bobsleigh Club owns and maintains the prestigious track and the President, Gunter Sachs, runs the lodge and the highly exclusive Dracula Club within. We took a tour but since it was so prestigious (and had a bit of a strange theme) I will respect the secrecy and privacy of the club and its member list. Let’s just say that strings of garlic hung from the bar, there was a bat skeleton on the wall, and apparently a coffin in the basement that – rumour has it – comes out on occasion for a few inebriated members to take a spin down the rushing Bob Run.

St Moritz - Bobsleigh

Unsure of the validity of said rumour, Sachs does operate a nighttime competition called Dracula’s Ghost Riders for which the grand prize at the end is shaped like a coffin.

The Dracula Club, known as quite the party destination has a restaurant and pub along with the members-only area. It’s open to new membership if you care to join, but even according to a Dracula Club’s Facebook page, you would have to abide by and swear to follow Dracula rules.

Bobsleigh Today
All history and folklore aside, at over 5,500 ft long the Bob Run finishes up in the town of Celerina and is also home to the Bobsleigh World Cup. The Bob Run is open for all nations and women who may also train on this amazing course.

The Swiss have built up a dynasty of champion bobsleigh traditions (literally, from the ground up) so it’s truly no wonder the Swiss Olympic Bobsleigh Teams excels so greatly in international competition.

St Moritz - Bobsleigh St Moritz - Bobsleigh

St Moritz - Bobsleigh

The 125th anniversary of the original Cresta Run, which started it all, will take place in St Moritz February 5th until the 14th, 2010.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the run in Whistler treats teams this winter and how our Canadian team will compete during the Games which kick off February 12, 2010 in Vancouver. Just a few weeks ago our women’s team made bobsleigh history by placing first and second in a world cup event in Germany so it should be a great event on all fronts.

You can view the rest of my photos from my media trip to Switzerland in this photo set, and read all posts here.

Head over to my Birks contest find out how to win a bracelet (value $350) between now and January 14th, 2010. You can only enter to win by checking out the bobsleigh display at Birks & then answering a question on Miss604.com.

8 Comments  —  Comments Are Closed

  1. Birks Bracelet and Bobsleigh Contest » Vancouver Blog Miss 604 by Rebecca BollwittMonday, January 4th, 2010 — 11:47am PST

    […] Liveblogging Services « older Vancouver 2010: Bobsleigh History […]

  2. Robert DallMonday, January 4th, 2010 — 12:28pm PST

    Wow the sled on the left looks like it is sponsored by Firefox. . .

  3. DaveOTuesday, January 5th, 2010 — 3:55pm PST

    Simply a comprehensive and interesting dossier on the noble bobsleigh. What a cool backstory to the sport.

  4. peteWednesday, January 13th, 2010 — 12:34am PST

    Been to Birks to see the sleigh. Couldn’t tell whether it is a two-man or a four-man as I’m not familar with this equipment. Any facts on dimension information would certainly help! Tried searching the internet and couldn’t come up with anything. Am I taking this too seriously or is everyone just guessing? 50% chance to get the correct answer…… feel like an idiot walking around the sleigh a few times. The guards looked pretty puzzled and ready to call the cops on me. Perhaps a better skill-testing question would be to ask the readers what colour the sleigh is, then getting the correct answer would be quite difficult without actually seeing it.

  5. Miss604Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 — 5:38pm PST

    Hi Pete,

    I have been assured that the staff are aware of the contest and they also know the correct answer so please feel free to ask them if you stop by again. Thanks!

  6. Sled Head Toque Campaign » Vancouver Blog Miss 604 by Rebecca BollwittTuesday, January 19th, 2010 — 7:48am PST

    […] been to the birthplace of Bobsleigh this initiative is of special interest. Lueders has been the the Olympics before having competed in […]

  7. HelsSunday, February 21st, 2010 — 7:14pm PST

    This is a great story and one I enjoyed even more after reading Roger Gibbs’ book, The Cresta Run 1885-1985. It is not a sport I would dream of going in, not in my wildest fantasies. But I admire those brave people who risked their necks in 1885. Many thanks for the link.

  8. travis ellisFriday, March 5th, 2010 — 8:43am PST

    this sport is awesome dude

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