British Bobsleigh – The World is now watching us

In 2010, British Bobsleigh was in a state of chaos. Fast forward six years to 2016 and the turnaround has been nothing short of dramatic and impressive. A 26th place in the four man in the Vancouver Olympics has been turned around into challenging for the top spot at the World Championships in Igls in 2016. With just fifteen World Cup races between now and the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the drive for Gold is strong. The results trajectory on the road to Pyeongchang is on target but with the results getting better and better, British Bobsleigh is now being watched by all the rest of the teams on the World Cup.

In the six years since the Vancouver Olympics, a lot has changed. A complete overhaul of the staff was one of the first things that Gary Anderson, the Performance Director appointed in the wake of Vancouver, undertook. This now sees the British team as one of the leading teams when it comes to the all important start. The power and strength of the athletes in getting a 210KG sled moving as fast as possible, is crucial to success.

Last summer saw Mark Lewis-Francis become a high profile member of the squad. While Lewis-Francis did not make the cut for the World Championships in Igls, the Gold Medal winning 100m relay runner is still an integral part of the set up and battling for a spot on the team.

Lewis-Francis’s decision shows just how far the sport has risen in the last six years. From being warned not to touch the sport back in 2010, Anderson has put together a programme that is now the envy of many other sports under the UK Sport funding programmes. From being a military dominated sport in 2010 it is now highly professional outfit and this has been key to success.

The implementation of small improvements saw Paula Jackson win the World Junior Title in 2011. Fifth place at the Sochi Olympics for the Four Man was greeted with disappointment such was the hope and desire to win a medal.

The bar has been raised through hard work, commitment and a sensible programme. This leads to the question of how to go from fifth to the podium and Gold. In Igls in 2016 at the World Championships, Lamin Dean, the pilot of GBR 1 was heading towards Gold when he made an uncharacteristic error on run three of the four runs that saw the sled crash when within 0.04 of the lead of the race. All four athletes walked away unharmed from the crash but all involved in the sport knew this was an opportunity missed.

In 2010 no one wanted to be touched by the sport. In 2016 Anderson has had to work hard to keep his coaching team intact. Other teams are sniffing around his coaches but they, like Anderson, are committed to the cause. The team works as one.

So how has it all come together? Anderson has used the principles devised for Baseball that the film Moneyball dealt with. From the composition of where the brakemen push from, the stride patterns to where the strength of a brakeman lies in relation to the type of start the course has: Every hundredth of a second counts.

While funding from UK Sport is vital and a major player in the budget, commercial support has not been as forthcoming as the UK Sport funding has been. The better the results have got, the support from UK Sport has improved. The very nature of sport is that it is a competitive market place: There is no guarantee of success, especially when the margin of error is hundredths of seconds from the podium to not being on the podium. With this in mind and Lottery money highly sought after, the final push to Pyeongchang will be vital.

“The world is watching us now,” Anderson explained. Anderson and his head coach, Swiss ex-bobsleigh pilot Dominik Scherrer, know that if the team rests on its laurels from last season, they will go backwards. Anderson is not afraid to wield the axe on athletes or coaches if it will take the team forwards, no one is bigger than the programme. “All the teams are improving,” Anderson continued, “we have to keep moving forward.” With a number of high profile sprinters looking to join the programme post Rio, they have been told that if they do not make the team for Rio, then they are probably not good enough for the Bobsleigh team. Confidence is strong in this sport.

The technology involved in the sleds is another area where marginal gains are searched for. A one-hundredth of a second improvement each run adds up over the course of four runs. While the collaboration with McLaren Formula One has finished, the work they helped with is still being implemented. National pride in Germany has seen the main Bobsleigh manufacturer, Singer, help the German team first. A change in programme from the German team allowed the British team to work with Singer and this is another example of the status of the British team.

The targets set by UK Sport are high but are constantly being met. Going from fifth to podium is the target but a very achievable target. The trajectory is on target but now is the time for taking a risk and holding nerves. The long term future of the sport is looking good, this is not just a flash in the pan. From taking a risk at the start, with the line on the course to increasing funding to enable these risks to be taken, every step of the way is a risk but fortune favours the brave!

Nobody is entitled to anything in this world but the more work that is put in improves the odds for success no matter what the sport.

Picture Credit Mike Varey – Elitepix