views updated Jun 11 2018


Tobogganing is a popular winter recreational pursuit in which participants coast on a sled down a snow- or icecovered slope. The word "toboggan" comes from the North American Algonquian term odabaggan, which means sled. The Algonquian Indians used this flat-bottomed wooden sled with a curved up front end to pull game and supplies across the winter landscape of snow or ice or rode upon it going downhill. Aside from using the toboggan as a sled to transport goods, it began to be used for winter recreation in Europe as early as the sixteenth century, and was introduced in Canada, the United States, and Europe in the late nineteenth century as a modern sporting event. Three related winter sports grew out of the original tobogganing activity: 1) Cresta Run, or skeleton tobogganing; 2) luge tobogganing; 3) bobsleigh, or bobsled. The Cresta Run toboggan used a "skeleton" sled with metal runners with a rider in a headfirst, prone position on the sled. Luge tobogganing involved a sled with metal runners also, but with a rider in a feet-first position sliding down a track. The bobsleigh, or bobsled, had a rider, or several riders, in an upright position, originally with the riders "bobbing" forward and backward on the sled to induce it to pick up speed while coasting downhill.

Development and Current Status

The modern organized sport of tobogganing has its origins in the villages of Davos and St. Moritz, Switzerland. Visitors sought the recuperative powers of the clean alpine air for their respiratory ailments, and, for a winter pastime, they began to toboggan down the slopes. As the activity became popular, teams were developed from the roster of guests at the village hotels, and races were designed from Davos to Kloster, Switzerland, on the Post Roads. The Davos Toboggan Club was established in 1883, and it hosted races. The success of the Davos Club influenced the founding of the St. Moritz Toboggan Club in 1887, and it sponsored toboggan competitions also. Michael Seth-Smith, in his book The Cresta Run, described how people began to seek out St. Moritz in the winter. Apparently in 1864, Johannes Badrutt, the proprietor of the Kulm Hotel, the premier place to go in the summer at St. Moritz, asked four guests from England to spend the entire winter there for free, in order to experience the beautiful weather without need for a hat or coat. By 1884, Kulm Hotel guests in St. Moritz decided they needed a toboggan race like the one for hotel clientele in Davos. Since there were no existing Post Roads on which to plot a toboggan run in St, Moritz, they had to build a racing track. Peter Bonorand from Switzerland was hired to design a banked track with several curves. Since the toboggan sled runners cut into the snow on the curves and slowed the sled, the planners decided to ice the curves. Designed by Major W. H. Bulpetts, this course was named the Cresta Run, after the hamlet at the base of the course. A challenge race was organized on 18 February 1885 between sledders from the Davos and Kulm hotels. The Davos team won since they held back and were careful in descending the run. The Kulm Hotel team risked too much and ultimately fell off the toboggan.

The present style of riding on the skeleton toboggan is attributed to McCormich, who, in 1887, navigated the run in the "Grand National" event by riding prone and headfirst on the sled. Each year the three-quarter mile Cresta Run is rebuilt to follow the shape of the valley it runs through, from St. Moritz, to the hamlet of Cresta, to the village of Celerina. The course drops 514 feet from the top to finish.

Technical Aspects

The Swiss devised alpine Schlitten, or sleighs, with curved wooden runners. L. P. Child, an American, improved upon these in 1887 with the introduction of twenty-two millimeter metal runners on the skeleton toboggan. A sliding seat was developed and added to the skeleton in 1902 by Arden Bott, but his design is no longer used. Modern skeleton sleds are made from steel, are no longer than 1.2 meters and 0.4 meters wide and high, have a neoprene rubber covering, and a saddle for the rider to rest upon. The runner blades are stainless steel and cut into the ice to provide lateral stability to the ride. Push handles are located at the back end of the sled, and shoulder guards are designed into the front corners for protection from careening into the sidewalls of the track. There are no brakes or steering mechanisms. To brake, one "rakes" or digs one's spiked shoes into the snow or ice. To steer, one shifts one's body weight. A rider puts a skeleton in motion by sprinting fifty meters in five to six seconds, while carrying the sled, then landing on top of the skeleton and riding it down the run.

In 1928 and 1948, the Cresta Run was included in the Olympic Games at St. Moritz. An American, Jennison Heaton, won the first gold medal for the skeleton race. Skeleton tobogganing experienced a resurgence of interest when the event was reintroduced as an Olympic sport for men and women in 2002 at the Salt Lake City winter games. Women have been active participants in skeleton tobogganing from the beginning of the sport.

Internationally, skeleton tobogganing is governed by the Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et Tobogganing (FIBT). In the United States, skeleton tobogganing is governed by the United States Bobsled and Skeleton (Toboggan).

See also: Skiing, Alpine; Skiing, Nordic, Snowboarding


Arlott, John, ed. The Oxford Companion to World Sports and Games. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Bernstein, Jeremy. "Raking (Cresta Run in St. Moritz)." The New Yorker (28 March 1988): 88–90, 93–98.

Smith, Michael Seth. The Cresta Run: History of the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club. New York: Foulsham, 1976.

"Tobogganing." Canadian Encyclopedia: Year 2000 Edition. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1999.

Katharine A. Pawelko


views updated May 14 2018

to·bog·gan / təˈbägən/ • n. a long narrow sled used for the sport of coasting downhill over snow or ice. It typically is made of a lightweight board that is curved upward and backward at the front.• v. [intr.] [usu. as n.] (tobogganing) ride on a toboggan: he thought he would enjoy the tobogganing.DERIVATIVES: to·bog·gan·er·bog·gan·ist / -nist/ n.



views updated May 17 2018

toboggan sb. XIX. — Canadian F. tabaganne, of Algonquian orig.
Hence vb. XIX.