Skeleton Women: The British habit of sliding head-first down icy slopes


On Sunday Jenny Jones achieved sport’s biggest accolade and made history, becoming the first Britain to win (and keep*) an Olympic medal on snow. Yet she joins a growing list of British women (with Lizzie Yarnold currently leading the Sochi competition) in extreme sport who have mined out all the medals for Britain since 2002.

Until Jones, all of these medals came in the skeleton, that gentle pastime whereby you throw yourself down a thin stream of ice, head first of course, steering yourself at 80mph with intricate wiggles and taps of your feet. Alex Coomber started off the trend in 2002 with bronze at Salt Lake City, when skeleton returned to the programme after a 54-year absence. Rudman claimed silver in Turin four years later, before Amy Williams went one better and dominated the competition in Vancouver 2010.

The British phobia of winter is well-known, and the annual barbeque here on the first warm day in March is nearly as big as Christmas. So it is remarkable to find that alongside this success is the fact that the British had a massive hand in the invention of ice-sliding sports.

It all began in the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz, with a wager. St. Moritz was a spa town back in 1864, popular with wealthy Victorians looking to replenish themselves in summer. As September hit, hotelier Johannes Badrutt watched his English guests packing up for London, taking their riches with them. So Badrutt suggested a bet;

Come and see the Alps this winter, and if you are bored, cold, or unhappy, I will pay for everything. The St. Moritz tourist page celebrates the moment the English discovered the winter for the first time, gasping in amazement at the sunshine (of all things) and the glorious scenery. Badrutt won his bet, and soon the British populated the Alps every winter, and like all British tourists of history, decided to take over the town.

The British tourists managed to get hold of a delivery sled, which they put to use to slide on the icy, precarious, and dangerously downhill narrow streets of the town. (Slightly) more sophisticated guests decided that a simple delivery sled would not do; some would not travel in anything less than a carriage, and so the first bobsleds were constructed.

The Swiss hoteliers had created a monster and soon their fellow townspeople were being threatened by daring tourists, sliding through the streets at difficult speed. They decided to construct some purpose-built toboggan tracks to keep the British off the streets; one of these became the Cresta Run, built by Major John Bulpett in 1884/5, and quickly became represented by the St Moritz Tabogganing Club (SMTC). The first “Grand National” race was held in 1885, and in 1890, the “erratic” Mr Cornish made the decision to go down the Cresta head first. Skeleton was born.

It is a shame how quickly skeleton and Cresta (seen as a different sport by some) became so exclusive. According to British Skeleton, it now costs £450 for each slide down the pipe. It was always a domain of the wealthy, but there was a simple romance about those early sliders, who grabbed a sled at the top of the hill and threw themselves at it. The SMTC saw it fit, in the 1920s, to ban women from their course. Their website writes;

“Mrs J.M Baguley was the last lady to ride the Cresta in a race on 13th January 1925. Ladies rode in practice after that date, but were banned from riding on 6th January 1929.”

They do not elaborate, and the terms and conditions simply state “women are not permitted to ride the Cresta run”. You have to wonder what it was that changed their minds. Perhaps it is related to the refusal to allow women to compete in long-distance running events in this era, based on some perceived notion of physical inferiority. The modern Olympic Games have since rectified this; in Sochi the sole male-only event remaining is the Nordic Combined.

But the spiritual home and birthplace of the sport remains closed; women cannot ride the Cresta. Former rugby star Matt Dawson, in his article for the Daily Mail, was astute enough to spot the presence of the descendants of the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, but didn’t notice the complete absence of women. Ian Cowie, writing in the Telegraph, simply mentions they have been banned since 1929, but again spies a Ribbentrop, and both note the army traditions and Old Boy atmosphere that surrounds the Cresta.

It is patently ridiculous that if Amy Williams turned up with her sled at the Cresta today she would likely be turned away. If they still believe women aren’t “tough enough” to ride the Cresta, they should watch the achievements of Lizzie Yarnold, Williams, and Shelley Rudman. If that is not enough, they should consider RAF officer Alex Coomber, who slid the course at Salt Lake City with a broken wrist, which she’d injured just 10 days earlier in training, and took the bronze.