Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Why are Team GB so good at skeleton?

Posted on 26 June 2020 by Julia Cook

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Throwing yourself headfirst down an ice track on what seems to be little more than a tea tray may not sound appealing to many, but at the heart of it is one of Great Britain’s most successful winter sports. 

Skeleton returned to the Olympic Winter Games at Salt Lake City, USA in 2002 and Team GB have medalled at every Games since, winning seven medals in just five years.

So how is temperate Britain, a country with no ice track, a world-leader in this chilly winter sport?

It may help that many credit the Brits with inventing it, in the Swiss resort of St Moritz (now one of the most famous skeleton tracks on the circuit) in the late 19th century. Following its creation, Team GB enjoyed great success in the event, securing medals at the 1924 and 1948 Olympic Games, before skeleton was dropped from the schedule. 

Skeleton’s resurgence into the Olympics in 2002 meant investment from UK Sport, and a push-start facility, built to replicate the start of the skeleton ice track on dry land, was built at the University of Bath. 

This soon became the home of British Skeleton, and is tipped to be a factor of Britain’s success. 

Germany, Austria and America are all examples of stand out performers on the global skeleton stage, but all have ice tracks and club systems that allow their athletes to start sliding young. By the time their athletes start competing they’ve had more runs down an ice track than most GB athletes will get in a lifetime. 

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2018 Olympic bronze medallist Dom Parsons suggests that Britain actually use their lack of ice track to their advantage. 

“With not having an ice track we have to work a lot harder on getting the benefit from each run we get down the track,” he said.

“I think that’s something that nations who have their own track don’t tend to make the most of sometimes, they’ve just got an endless supply of runoffs. We really focus on every little detail. Each run is in much more depth than it seems.”

British skeleton performance director Natalie Dunman agrees and says that it can ensure that they perfect other areas of performance. 

“Obviously we don’t have an ice track but we do have a push track so we have focused very much on finding athletes that are physically capable of pushing really really fast,” she said.

“Then we use the time that we do have on ice very strategically, optimising every single minute that those athletes get on the ice and ensuring that we’re building a great skill set for them to go out and perform.”

“So it’s a constraint, but it’s also an opportunity because when it comes to the Olympic Games you only get a certain number of runs on a track anyway so we’re almost teaching our athletes how to do that before they get to the biggest event of their careers.”

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While Dunman attributes GB skeleton’s vigorous talent identification to finding the best athletes, not all come through this route. 

Parsons was studying at University of Bath when he first gave skeleton a go. 2010 Olympic gold medallist Amy Williams and 2006 Olympic silver medallist Shelley Rudman also had similar starts into the sport, both having been students at the university. 

Skeleton has also remained a popular pastime in the British military and 2002 Olympic bronze medallist Alex Coomber was a Royal Air Force officer. 

However, the vast majority of the current GB skeleton athletes have come through recent national talent identification searches. 

“The talent recruitment campaigns are hugely important. We work very closely with UK Sport for those,” Dunham says. 

“We are essentially a talent transfer sport so we transfer athletes from other sports into skeleton and hopefully give them a great opportunity to go on and be successful. 

“That is our way of finding athletes and being able to run those national searches and kind of campaigns to bring athletes in from other sports is essential really to our success.”

Double Olympic champion Lizzy Yarnold and Olympic bronze medallist Laura Deas were both recruited through Girls4Gold talent IDs run by UK Sport.

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While instrumental to GB skeleton’s success, the regular Talent ID campaigns to find the next Olympic champion means that competition for places on the GB skeleton team remains fierce. 

“There were various talent ID camps, which have happened in nine years since I started, and with each new intake of athletes there’s been a lot of pressure on who stays and who goes,” said Parsons. 

“They did deselect me from the team twice. Once a couple of years after I started and then another time in 2012 because of clashes between university work and training. So it’s been a bit of an up and down ride but eventually I’ve managed to produce enough results to stay on.” 

Despite the highs and lows Parsons has graduated from his PhD in mechanical engineering, as well as securing a bronze medal at the 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang – a Games where GB won half of the available medals on offer, with Yarnold and Deas also winning gold and bronze respectively. 

Deas also credits the world-class coaching and support for the program’s success. 

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“I think we’ve found a formula that works really well in terms of bringing in the right athletes and the right support team around them,” she said.

“I think we’ve got a really good idea of how to introduce people to ice and then how to apply them really quickly, and then you add on top of that the fact that you’re selecting people that are already within a percentage of the world’s best when it comes to the push start and you’ve got a recipe for success there. 

“We have world class ice coaches, world class staff, and all of the other aspects that go into the performance – we have that so all of the ingredients are there.”

Dunman agrees that the elite staff are instrumental to the success.

“They play a key role in everything from recruiting new athletes and bringing those athletes through in quite a compressed time frame compared to other nations,” she said. 

“That does take a lot of expertise and support so all the staff from the coaches, to the physios to the strength and conditioning coaches play a really key role in the athletes and their development journeys.”

One thing is for sure, there’s more to GB skeleton’s success than meets the ice.