National Post (Latest Edition)
It’s tough sledding
CANADA struggling to Compete in bobsled given financial backing other nations have
Just a year away from the beijing Olympics, Canada’s bobsledders are being pushed off the top of the podium by Germans and Americans.
And it’s not all about athletic ability.
Since the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, where Canada tied Germany for two-man gold and won twowoman bronze, there have been 83 World Cup races and 10 more at world championships. Germany has won 65, the united States 16 and Canada just five. The total medal tally is far more lopsided as Germany leads with 150, the u.s. has 31 and Canada 28.
The stats require an asterisk for the first half of the 2020-21 World Cup season, given there weren’t any Canadians or Americans in the field, so Germany padded its already sizable lead. And the decision by bobsleigh Canada Skeleton (BCS) to keep its bobsled athletes at home as a defence against the COVID-19 pandemic may have adversely affected the team’s results earlier this month at the world championships, where Canadians were shut out of the bobsled medals for the first time since 2015.
Then again, former Canadian pilot Kaillie Humphries, who joined USA bobsled in the fall of 2019, skipped the first half and still won monobob and twowoman gold at the worlds.
The Germans’ enviable depth runs past the incomparable Francesco Friedrich, who won two-man and four-man gold at worlds. Germany won nine of the 12 world championship medals up for grabs, while Canada’s best paled in comparison: ninth in two-woman (pilot Cynthia Appiah and erica Voss), ninth in two-man (pilot Chris Spring and Mike evelyn), fifth in women’s monobob (Appiah) and fifth in four-man (pilot Justin Kripps, ben Coakwell, Cam Stones and ryan Sommer).
Canada’s post-pyeongchang struggles are a bit alarming, but German dominance is hardly new, and it stems from a deep pool of athletes and world-leading technical advancements emanating from a government-funded sled-building program. The Institute for research and development of Sport equipment (FES) was founded in 1963 in east Germany as a means of gaining an edge through engineering and it was successful in bobsled and other sports.
even so, German bobsledders reached a crossroads at Sochi 2014, where they were held off the Olympic podium for the first time since Innsbruck 1964. Coincidentally, the united States flourished at Sochi, winning four medals in bobsleds that had been developed in partnership with bmw/designworks, a company that has its roots in Germany.
German bobsled officials quickly established their own partnership with BMW Group’s research and Innovation Centre in Munich. Germany’s sleds for the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018 came out of that relationship and vaulted them back on top of the podium, where they remain today.
BCS, which operates on a much smaller budget than Germany’s federation, most recently bought affordable equipment from BTC, a Latvian company, and before that eurotech, a dutch manufacturer. The Latvian sleds are good quality for a modest investment, but the Germans have spent lavishly to have BMW engineer the world’s best equipment — used only by German athletes — and it continues to pay off in race-day advantage.
“The sport comes down to hundredths of a second,” said BCS high performance director Chris Le bihan. “Where can you find that? you can find that in so many different places. It’s not just the runners. Absolutely not.”
runner design and engineering is important, but there are complex aerodynamics at play in the cowling design and construction materials to control flex, as well as technical adjustments in steering design and chassis engineering, vibration dampening and the precise positioning of the athletes inside the bobsled.
“Obviously we’re trying to close all the gaps outside of race day, like the equipment setups, and we’re trying to find things that will make us faster,” Kripps said prior to the worlds. “but with the equipment it’s really tough, because you’ve got a couple thousand bucks up against a few million and companies that are worth billions. I spend time on my phone on Google researching different physics principles and they’ve got actual physicists working on it.
“It gets exhausting always trying to figure out how to make the equipment better and you’re always behind. For sure it’s the thing that I will miss the least when I retire, trying to figure out how they are so fast down the track with their equipment. They have equipment people specifically for that and we don’t. So we’re just a bunch of athletes trying to figure it out. Obviously the coaches are as well, but you’re playing a losing game until you really start playing the game.”
In 2017, BCS got back into the sled-building game but on such a shoestring budget that it didn’t really do the project justice. The organization hired dutch sled technician Marc Van den berg, who had helped run eurotech. He moved to Calgary from The Netherlands with plans for world-leading Canadian sleds and a new life.
Instead, the so-called Made in Canada project produced a two-man prototype that wasn’t tested or raced enough, and Van den berg’s relationship with BCS became so uncomfortable that he resigned and joined USA bobsled last summer.
“It’s a good bobsled,” Van den berg said of the prototype, “but I couldn’t work any more for these guys. They hired me to build that sled and do some other stuff. We had good results, but I can’t work for these guys, I just can’t.”
He cited a lack of communication from Le bihan and minimal project funding as reasons for his dissatisfaction.
“They never answered my phone calls, my text messages,” said Van den berg. “It was a complete disaster. A joke. There is so much wrong with that organization. It cost me a fortune and three years of my life.”
Le bihan said he wouldn’t get into a war of words with Van den berg.
“The reality is he’s bound by confidentiality. It isn’t his place to be talking about anything to do with our projects. He told me he left because his paycheque is bigger, let’s put it that way, with the u.s. program. I talked to him about it. There are lots of frustrating holdups in the way the funding model works. It’s public money and it flows when it flows and sometimes it’s delayed and that’s the way it is.”
Operating on a budget of $150,000, the Made in Canada project relied on BCS staff working after-hours and the goodwill of people like Graham bruce, a retired Calgary-based engineer who offered his expertise in laying up carbon fibre for the cowling. A partnership with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology produced parts for the chassis. Focus Auto design made the plug from which a cowling mould was made, and CSN domestic Import painted the cowling.
Compared to the German production machine, the Canadian process was primitive.
“We are literally laying carbon fibre on a wooden mould in a garage and they’re doing 3d modelling on computers and (their fabrication is) all done by machines,” said Kripps. “It’s like if a couple guys from Calgary tried to make a Formula One car and race it against Mercedes AMG in the Grand Prix. you’re playing in different worlds.”
even so, the Made in Canada sled shouldn’t languish on the shelf any longer.
“I think it had a lot of promise,” said Kripps. “The problem was a lack of a real testing system and really giving Marc the kind of free rein he needed to build what he wanted. … There’s a lot of good ideas in that sled. you put the time, effort and money into it, I think it could be really good and I think that’s something the Canadian program needs in the future if they want to be competitive at the highest level. you can’t always be playing catch-up with equipment.”
BCS has been happy with its Latvian sleds, which are an improvement over the eurotech models, but the current medal drought suggests the organization needs to do something different. building its own equipment is an option, and to do it right, BCS will need a generous partner with expertise and manufacturing capability.
“Our sled project is not done,” said Le bihan. “We designed and built something as our proof of concept. Now we’re at a point where we are looking at how to revise it and to be able to create more than one sled. I think what we need is an expert in building composite materials. I think we have to partner with a high-tech company that knows how to do this stuff efficiently and with great precision.
“That goes for building the chassis as well. And it’s not a partnership where we’re paying $100,000 for a sled. We need to partner with somebody who wants to do this as a project to see something happen, to help and be involved with this thing we’re doing called bobsled at the Olympics.”