Skeleton – that gentle pastime, wherein you throw yourself down a claustrophobic strip of ice, head first (of course), steering yourself past 80mph with intricate wiggles and taps of your feet.
At some point it became a British pastime. The ice mountain has become a modern-day medal mine, starting with Alex Coomber’s bronze at Salt Lake City in 2002, in the first ever Olympic women’s skeleton.
Coomber had started something. Shelley Rudman claimed silver four years later in Turin, before Amy Williams took the big prize, dominating the ice at Vancouver 2010. Then Lizzy Yarnold turned up, matching Williams’ achievement with gold in Sochi. Fast forward to Pyeongchang, she’s at it again, now with Laura Deas for company. Yarnold defended her title with a mighty final slide, joined on the podium by Deas who took bronze. Britain’s skeleton women are world beaters.
Not bad for a nation that is seemingly allergic to winter, where a patch of snow shuts everything down. Yet the British sliding tradition goes back way beyond Coomber, to the very origins of the sport.
It all started with a wager, in the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz. In 1864, St. Moritz was a spa town, popular with wealthy Victorians who headed to the alps to replenish themselves in summer. Then September came, and the British packed up and headed to London with their riches in tow, much to the chagrin of the hotelier Johannes Badrutt. So that year, he convinced his guests to return for winter. If you are bored, cold, or unhappy, he said, I will pay for everything. It is said that the British frolicked in glee at the newfound Alpine winter, gasping in amazement of the sunshine (of all things) and the frosted scenery. Badrutt won his bet, of course, but unleashed a can of worms upon the Swiss hills. The British came back every winter and, like the British tourists of today, decided to take over the town and unleash mayhem.
The legend goes that one group of tourists got hold of a delivery sled, and got on it, sliding through the icy, precarious, and dangerously downhill narrow streets of St. Moritz, terrifying all who crossed their path. Their (slightly) more sophisticated successors decided that a lowly delivery sled would just not do – they would not travel in anything less than a carriage – and so the first bobsleds were built.
The Swiss hoteliers had to face the monster they had created – the townspeople had grown weary of the troublesome tourists and so the hoteliers built purpose-built toboggan tracks to get the British off their streets. One of these became the Cresta Run, built by Major John Bulpett in 1884/5, and soon became the spiritual home of the sport and the base of the St Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC). In 1885, they held their first “Grand National” race and, five years later, an “erratic” member called Mr Cornish decided to slide the Cresta head first. Skeleton was born.
Sadly, like many sports, sledding grew very exclusive very quickly, once codified. It’s always been a sport for the wealthy, but in those early days there were no rules or limits as to who could grab a sled atop an icy hill and throw themselves down it. In the 1920s, the SMTC saw it fit to ban women from their course.
“Mrs J.M. Bagueley 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.”
The ban remains. The Cresta’s terms and conditions simply state “women are not permitted to ride the Cresta run.” I wonder what changed their minds. In the early 20th century, there was a global backlash against women in sports, based on some preposterous notion of physical inferiority. In the Olympics, women were not allowed to run further than 200m until 1960. In the USA, women were banned from running the marathon for fifty years. In England, a similar ban existed for women in football, deemed “too much for a woman’s physical frame.”
Women have campaigned for decades to turn things around, and in recent years the situation has improved. The marathon ban was lifted in 1972, in part thanks to Kathrine Switzer, who ran the Boston Marathon in 1967 – entering as K.V. Switzer – and finished in good time despite attempts to remove her from the course. Each Olympics sees an increased number of women participants, and gets ever closer to event parity – the last male-only event in the Winter Games remains the Nordic Combined.
Yet the birthplace of skeleton remains closed to Shelley Rudman, Amy Williams, and Lizzy Yarnold. Perhaps the embargo endures because of the Old Boy tradition that surrounds the Cresta. Visitors, like Matt Dawson and Ian Cowie, note the mess hall atmosphere of the place and even spot a few descendants of the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, but largely seem untroubled by the complete absence of women. Are they afraid of a little competition? Four years ago I thought this was a shame, but now I think it pitiful. Britain’s skeleton women are unstoppable – they are the headline acts of every Winter Games. Inspired by the “marginal gains” of British cycling, with less of the institutional misogyny, the skeleton set-up in Bath is the very model of a modern sporting powerhouse – professional, competitive and smooth as ice. If the SMTC doesn’t want to share their ice with such athletes, then that is their loss.
This is a dynasty whose queens are great symbols and great advocates of women in sport. Upon winning in Sochi, Yarnold came home determined to go into “as many schools as possible” and encourage girls to take up sport, and “not [to worry] about what the media image is of the perfect woman, it’s about being you and being proud of what you are.”
They are even inspiring the men (how could they not?). Dom Parsons followed in their footsteps on Friday, taking skeleton bronze. The Times connected his success to the Cresta Run “crazy aristocrat” pioneers, but he follows in different footsteps. This tradition, crowned by Lizzy Yarnold, started in 2002 with RAF officer Alex Coomber. She who slid the course at Salt Lake City with a broken wrist, which she’d injured just ten days earlier in training, and took the bronze.
This post is an updated version of my very first blogpost, Skeleton Women: The British Habit of Sliding Head-First down Icy Slopes