It’s All Downhill from Here

While the rest of you were out voting Tuesday — and look at the mess THAT made — I was at the Utah Olympic Park, risking my life as I tried out the quasi-sport known as “skeleton.”

Aside from “Tonya Harding,” “skeleton” may be the scariest-sounding name in the Olympics. It involves lying on your stomach on a heavy steel sled and hurtling head-first down a bobsled track, using only your shoulders and the power of prayer to steer. Gravity alone gets you up to nearly 60 mph; the professionals, who get a running start and are apparently made entirely of lead, go as fast as 90 mph.

It’s an interesting sport in that it requires almost no athletic ability — all you have to do is lie there, which is what appealed to me about it — and yet it can kill you. If you lift your head up too much in an attempt to see where you’re going, you’ll mess up your aerodynamics and crash into a wall and die. But if you keep your head down too low, your face will scrape the ground, which will result in the rest of your body flying over the top of you, and you will crash into a wall and die. Also, if you keep your head in exactly the right position, you will crash into a wall and die.

The skeleton has appeared in the Olympics only twice, in 1928 and 1948, after which it was discontinued due to lack of interest. (This may have been for the same reasons that sports like the Arsenic Swallow and the Shoot Yourself in the Head were undersupported.) It’s coming back in 2002, though, and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee has a “wannabe camp” that gives journalists and other flabby non-athletes the opportunity to come crash into a wall and die.

I was joined by Deseret News Olympics sports editor Scott Taylor and four junior-high students from Roosevelt, Utah. (I don’t know where it is, either.) Our instructor was Bob Bills, who directs the youth sports and wannabe camps. Pat Brown — the coach of the Jamaican bobsled team on whom the John Candy character was based in “Cool Runnings” — was on site to give us a push down the track and mop up the blood and entrails afterward.

I was outfitted with a helmet and shoulder pads and a pair of spiked shoes allegedly used to help you stop at the end of the run, though I now find this theory amusing. My sled, I was told, was the same one used by SLOC chairman Mitt Romney. It had been lightened so it wouldn’t go quite as fast, because Mitt had been, quote, “screaming like a little girl.” (That quote is a work of fiction.)

We took a tarp-covered flatbed truck up the hill to a midpoint in the track from which we would launch. The track looks like an ice-covered waterslide and is the same one used for the luge and bobsled events. Apparently, they just build a track and then think of weird stuff to throw down it. Next it’ll be kids on garbage-can lids, or fat guys doing somersaults.

Anyway, the order was determined, and we each got three runs down the track. I freely admit that as it came close to being my turn, I was completely terrified. It seemed virtually impossible that I would NOT be injured, knowing that I would be going at least 50 mph with my head as the only object separating me from everything else.

I got on the sled, half-listened to a few last-minute words of caution from Brown, and with a gentle push from him, I was on my way. I had already decided that, rather than trying to see where I was going, which could only lead to trouble, I would just close my eyes and focus on maintaining control of my bladder. (Because of the visor on the helmet, I couldn’t see more than about two feet in front of me anyway.)

As I rocketed down the track, two thoughts occurred to me: 1) I was picking up speed very, very quickly; and 2) I was going to die without ever knowing true love. Specters of missed opportunities floated past me: jokes untold, women undated, songs undownloaded from Napster. What had I done with my life? How would I be remembered by the–

OW! As I came around the last bend in the track, my head rammed into the wall. I ricocheted from one wall to the other, like an air-hockey puck gliding smoothly and gracefully across the table, smashing into the side, and then floating gently away again, only to smash into the other side. It hurt. A lot.

When I finally came to a stop, I was dazed and disoriented, more so than usual. Not wanting to wuss out in front of the junior-high kids, who were scared at the beginning but were now having fun, I took my second and third runs, too, rather than stopping after the concussive first trip like any smart person would have done.

The whole experience was fun, in its way, and certainly exciting. The only real injuries I received were psychological, and they aren’t really noticeable against the pre-existing ones. And the best part is, when it was over, it was over. Which is more than I can say for certain elections.

[ This was a special edition of “Snide Remarks” that appeared on the front page of The Daily Herald. Our Olympics reporter was invited to try the skeleton, but he couldn’t go due to scheduling problems and his being a wuss. So the editors figured I could go and write a funny story about it. I was flattered to be “on assignment,” like real columnists sometimes are.
The image of fat guys doing somersaults down the bobsled track is very funny to me. Very funny indeed.
Oh, and if the publication date didn’t tip you off, this was published five days after the disastrous 2000 presidential election. ]