Nine months out of the year, the folks at Utah Olympic Park offer a small taste of the Olympic glory most of us were never able to realize. It’s simple: Pony up the fee, put your John Hancock on a short waiver, and you’ll earn yourself a spot in a four-man bobsled—on one of the fastest tracks in the world.
Since the Swiss invented bobsledding in the late 19th century, the sport has only grown in popularity. Sixty nations, representing 1,500 athletes, are part of the FIBT (Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing). Bobsledding began to reach wider audiences when it became an Olympic sport in 1924 (although the first women’s event wasn’t added until 2002). Injuries—ranging from burns and bruises to concussions and death (a rarity)—do happen, but they don’t stop athletes from pushing each other to go harder and faster.
The 400-acre Utah Olympic Park played host to the Nordic ski jumping and sliding (bobsled, luge, and skeleton) events during the 2002 Winter Olympics. The concrete-based track cost nearly $30 million to build, and until last year, it was considered the world’s fastest, with a record speed of 88.8 mph. (That honor now resides with the 2010 Winter Games track in Whistler, British Columbia, where a speed of more than 90 mph was recorded.)
In the winter, the Park City track is covered with a 1.5-inch-thick layer of ice, allowing both amateur and professional bobsledders to take runs that attain five G’s. In the summer, the track lays bare but not unused. Special sleds are manufactured with wheels for the warmer months. The warm-weather sleds, which weigh 700 pounds, are driven with the pilot’s feet and have padding, seat belts, and a roll cage. They look similar—but not identical—to competition sleds, which weigh only 500 pounds, are hand-driven, have limited padding, and lack both seat belts and a roll cage. Eight years after its Olympic debut, the Park City track is still used annually for World Cup competitions in skeleton and luge, as a training facility for national team athletes, and as a place where an ordinary person gets to do something extraordinary, if only for a passing moment.