tobogganing, skeleton

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The sport of descending down a constructed ice-covered track or channel, on a sled with metal runners (known as the skeleton). A famous track is the Cresta Run (St Moritz, Switzerland), constructed anew annually, and presided over by the St Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC), a private members' club founded in 1887. The skeleton toboggan's sliding seat, introduced in 1901–2, on which the rider lies chest down and head first, popularized the activity. Contemporary toboggans no longer have a sliding seat, but riders do wear special boots with rakes on the end of them to enable braking and steering. Riding face forward and ‘on the tummy’ had been innovated in the later 1880s, and the skeleton introduced in 1892, providing an alternative to the luge. Events were held in the January–February Cresta winter season that attracted the British upper classes, both men and women, for whom the Alps had become a mecca of sociability and conspicuous consumption. The last competitive run by a woman was in 1925, and, as the SMTC website has pedantically documented, women were banned on 6 January 1929. Other nations to provide prominent participants have included the Alpine nations and the USA. Skeleton tobogganing was included in the two Winter Olympic Games to have been held at St Moritz, in 1928 and 1948, providing champions from the USA and Italy respectively.

The SMTC claims to represent ‘one of the last truly amateur sports’, has approximately 1,300 members, and allows limited pay-as-you-go access for riders who can buy forms of supplementary membership. The club announces that ‘the home of the Cresta outside riding hours is the Sunny Bar of the Kulm Hotel’; the club's website cites the first Lord Brabazon's observation that ‘the Cresta is like a woman with this cynical difference—to love her once is to love her always’; its sponsors or donors in 2008 were Krug (champagne), Vertical Vision (information technology), Ciber (business solutions), W. & H. Graham's Port (port), Hicks & Don (‘all your every day, party and cellar requirements’), Omega (timing/boarding), and Julius Bar (asset management). In its concentration on sociability as well as derring-do sporting thrills, its male exclusivity, and its success at gaining elite donors and sponsors, the SMTC perpetuates a particular model of privileged leisure in which sport is a marker of distinction (in Pierre Bourdieu's sense) and inequality. In the mid 1960s writer Howard Bass asked Lord Brabazon of Tara, then president of the SMTC, a position previously held by his father, whether there were any prospects of his ‘favourite pastime regaining Olympic recognition’: ‘Most unlikely I should imagine’, he replied. ‘Because there is only one Cresta Run the sport cannot hope to be so internationally representative as lugeing.’ But despite Lord Brabazon of Tara's bullish parochialism, skeleton tobogganing regained its slot in the Olympic programme for the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, where both the men's and women's gold medals were taken by US riders. At Torino in 2006, the champions were from Canada and Switzerland.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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