Skeleton is a winter sport in which one person rides a special skeleton bobsled down a frozen track. The correct body position is lying face down and head-first.

The fact that it is an individual sport distinguishes skeleton from most of the other sliding sports, such as bobsleigh and luge. A skeleton bobsled is also very thin and heavy at the same time, giving the rider more precise control.

Just as with bobsleigh (but not with luge), skeleton begins with a running start from the opening gate at the top of the course. The skeleton sport, characterized by its high adrenaline rush and precarious nature, has consistently drawn the attention of sports enthusiasts globally. Often regarded as an extreme winter sliding sport, it involves athletes plummeting head-first on a small sled down a frozen track while lying flat on their stomachs. It is a test of courage, precision, and physical agility, offering spectators a thrilling spectacle of speed and skill. During elite races, a skeleton rider experiences accelerations up to 5 g and can reach speeds exceeding 130 km/h.

The skeleton sport, while not for the faint-hearted, is a captivating show of courage, speed, and precision. It offers a unique blend of thrill and excitement, keeping spectators on the edge of their seats. Though it may not be as widely recognized as other winter sports, the popularity of skeleton racing is undoubtedly on the rise, commanding a growing following of enthusiasts and participants worldwide.

skeletons competing in skeleton
Joke illustration of the sport

Why is it called skeleton?

It is possible that the name is a reference to the bony appearance of this type of bobsled, i.e. the stripped-down, minimalist design of the sled.

An alternative theory is that it is an anglicized version of the word “kjelke” which means toboggan in Norwegian.

The sled

Though it may look simple, a skeleton sled is a marvel of engineering. It consists of two runners affixed to a steel frame, with the top being covered with a fiberglass or carbon fiber material. The sled, weighing approximately 35-43 kg, is designed to cut through the ice with minimal friction, allowing racers to reach speeds exceeding 130 km/h.

Note: Because the skeleton rider is positioned face-down, head-first, the position is less aerodynamic than for luge (which is face-up, feet first). Skeleton is slower than both luge and bobsleigh, and involves only one rider.

The Course

Skeleton racers compete on the same tracks as bobsleigh and luge participants. The course structure, today commonly made of concrete, is covered in ice, and include a series of high-banked turns and straightaways. The most famous track is probably the one in St. Moritz, Switzerland, which is unique because it is naturally refrigerated and built anew each season.

The icy track becomes less smooth after each participant, making an early start more desirable. Rules are therefore in place to determine the exact order for the participants in official competition. At four-heat races, the start order for heats #2 and #3 will be in ascending order of combined time from prior heats.

If the same course it to be used for both bobsleigh and skeleton during a winter sport event, the norm is to hold the skeleton races first, as the bobsleighs do more damage to the track.

A brief history of the skeleton sport

The skeleton sport traces its roots back to the late 19th century, with the first organized race recording in Switzerland in 1884. Initially, it was a pastime for the affluent British tourists who visited the Swiss Alps, and especially the winter sport town of St. Moritz. In St. Moritz, skeleton developed as a spinoff from the toboggan races which were already popular among British vacationers in the Alps.

In the early 1880s, the Cresta Run had been created in St. Moritz, an ice racing toboggan track near the hamlet Cresta, and this helped popularize various types of ice sledding. Before the building of the Cresta Run, winter sport enthusiasts had been racing their sleds down the winding streets of St. Moritz, causing some consternation among the pedestrians. The Cresta Run was build with ten turns, to be similar to the experience of racing through winding streets.

The head-first prone position for skeletong racing became firmly established as a result of the 1887 Grand National competition in St. Moritz. The very bare-bones skeleton sled design we know today has its origins in a construction championed by L.P. Child from 1892 and onward.

Cresta vs. Skeleton

Today, competitive skeleton uses the same track as bobsleigh and luge, while the sport Cresta only takes place on the Cresta Run. The tracks used for skeleton, bobsleigh and luge are sufficiently “closed” to significantly reduce the risk of any participant being ejected from the track. The Cresta Run is considerably more open, increasing the risk of a rider accidently being ejected.

A skeleton rider steers using torque provided by the head and shoulders. The Cresta toboggan does not have any steering mechanism per se, but Cresta riders wear rakes on their boots and can, in conjunction with shifting their body weight, use them to help steer and brake.

International expansion of Skeleton

The first official skeleton competition that we know of outside Switzerland took place in Mürzzuschlag, Austria, in 1905, and was followed by an Austrian Championship the following year.

In 1908 and 1910, skeleton competitions were arranged in Semmering, Austria.


The Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing (FIBT) was founded in 1923. In 2015, the name was changed to the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation (IBSF).

Skeleton in the Olympics

The skeleton sport gained international recognition in the early 20th century and the International Olympic Committee declared both bobsleigh and skeleton to be Olympic sports in 1926. For skeleton, the rules of the St. Moritz run was adopted as the official Olympic rules.

Skeleton made its Olympic debut at the St Moritz Winter Games in 1928. It reappeared at the 1948 Winter Olympics, and after a long hiatus, the skeleton sport finally earned a permanent spot in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. This was also the year when a women´s race was added.

The 2002 Winter Olympics helped popularize the sport and there are now teams even in countries that traditionally have not been winter sport countries, such as Australia, Bermuda, Brazil, Israel, Mexico, and South Africa. The IBSF runs a support program for “emerging nations” that involves help with coaching, equipment funding, and travel.

Competitions outside the Olympics

The IBSF currently organizes three competitive circuits for international adult skeleton competitions; two lower-tier Continental Cups and one top-tier World Cup. One race in each World Cup season is designated the European Championship. There used to be an intermediate tier as well, but the Intercontinental Cup was discontinued after the 2022-2023 season.

There is also the IBSF World Championships, which are held at the end of each sliding season except for Olympic Winter Games years.

Essential Skills for Skeleton Athletes

The skeleton sport provides a unique spectacle that few other sports can match. The combination of breakneck speeds, precise navigation, close proximity to the ice, and the audacious head-first position of the athletes lend an unmistakable thrill to the event. Skeleton requires a blend of bravery, skill, and athleticism, making it a popular winter sports event.

Skeleton racing is much more than just sliding down an icy track. Athletes require a combination of skills such as explosive power, agility, tactical precision, and fearlessness. The race begins with a running start, where athletes sprint alongside their sleds before diving onto them. This phase requires significant strength and speed, as a good start can significantly influence the run’s overall time. Once on the sled, athletes steer by shifting their body weight and applying pressure on the sled runners. It requires exceptional skill and nerve to navigate the track’s twists and turns at breakneck speeds, mere inches from the ice.