This week in Winter Olympics excitement brings not just grace, elegance, scandal, grandpa-focussed finger-pointing, an ever-more-unnerving geopolitical mood, hockey shoot-outs, and the quiet ongoing dominance of Norway, but a new frontier in women’s bobsled, which concludes Saturday, with the medal event in the two-person sled competition. Last weekend, viewers got better acquainted with its stars, via a new Olympic event: monobob. As it approached, NBC did its cheerful best not only to psych us up for monobob but to tell us what it was. “A new bobsled event, called the monobob!” the tireless sports broadcaster Mike Tirico told viewers. “It’s one athlete, in a sled.” “Allow us to introduce you to monobob, where the driver becomes the brakeman!” the former bobsledder Bree Schaaf said, brightly, as the first heat began. After the Super Bowl, NBC moved swiftly from the confetti bombs and Gatorade sneak-ups to the Yanqing National Sliding Centre, where women donned helmets and got down to business.
As on other surfaces, gender inequity has long prevailed on the world’s ice tracks. Bobsled, part of the Winter Olympics since they began, in 1924, didn’t include women’s events until 2002, and there were fewer of them: men compete in four- and two-person bobsleds, but women competed only in two-person ones. (Both athletes push the sled; then one works the brakes while the other drives.) The event disparity, owing in part to a belief that bobsledding was too heavy and dangerous for women, resulted not just in more medals for men but in more men participating over all. The early pioneer Katharin Dewey, the granddaughter of the creator of the Dewey Decimal System, was on a mixed team in the 1940 U.S. Championships; in 2002, at that first Olympic women’s bobsledding event, Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers won gold for the U.S., making Flowers the first Black athlete to win gold in any Winter Olympics. The sport’s current stars, the formidable Kaillie Humphries and Elana Meyers Taylor, have also competed in men’s bobsledding events, while advocating for expanded competition opportunities for women. It’s been tough going—not unlike pushing a three-hundred-and-sixty-five-pound sled while sprinting in ice cleats—but they’ve prevailed. The result: monobob, in which one woman does all the work herself.
Bobsledding, which occurs in an ice chute, like other sliding sports—luge, skeleton—developed in the late nineteenth century among wealthy lodgers at a ski resort in St. Moritz. This is one reason why many of us don’t quite get it. We might ski or skate; we are less likely to luge, and bobsledding isn’t much like what we do in a toboggan. It’s known mostly as part of the Olympics, when, every four years, we observe feats of skillful snow-and-ice audacity on TV. Some Winter Olympic events can be enhanced by professional explanation, à la Steve Kornacki on aerials; others, as when the lovebird ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates skated to Daft Punk, are best enjoyed as art. When filmed from overhead, curling, which involves a lot of scrabbling around a bull’s-eye, looks like some sort of oversized-office-supplies ballet; biathlon, in my opinion, has some explaining to do. While watching it last week—and excitedly telling a friend what its two absurd components are—I decided that somebody should frame a movie around it: a team of the world’s best sharpshooting cross-country skiers, rifles strapped to their backs, enlisted for snowy derring-do. But this film has been made: recall “For Your Eyes Only,” in which James Bond, in the Alps, tangles with an Olympic biathlete, a lusty figure skater, bobsledders, ski-jumpers, and a snow motorcycle gang, on an ice track.
Monobob, too, lends itself to vivid imaginings. For one thing, it’s mysterious: for much of the event, the athlete’s body is largely obscured, all helmet and car. We see her most at the beginning, while she’s pushing the sled at top speed in order to leap into it. This part takes incredible power—training videos show Meyers Taylor, whom commentators have called one of the U.S. delegation’s physically strongest athletes, hoisting comically enormous barbells. Having gathered a head of steam, the racer jumps into the sled, which resembles a rogue bumper car or a very sophisticated go-kart. (For the Americans, it’s star-spangled, like Evel Knievel’s jumpsuit.) Inside, helmeted and intent, she focusses on optimal rocketing and veering, marshalling forces of control so as not to slide up walls while whipping around a corner, at up to seventy-five miles per hour. In monobob, the lack of an extra person makes the sled harder to control. It’s all mini race car on ice, sliding to a calm, level finish, the comedown like the disorienting normalcy at the end of a roller coaster.
Twenty participants from sixteen countries competed in monobob’s début. These included Huai Mingming, of China, who last year sang a song called “Burning Snowflake” on a nationally televised Lunar New Year broadcast, and bobsledders from Jamaica, South Korea, Germany, and Ukraine. But the main suspense—the main event, really—involved Canada, the United States, and those two top competitors, Humphries and Meyers Taylor, who have dominated in Olympic and world competitions, and who have overcome more than just bobsled-medal inequities. Humphries, thirty-six, represented Canada until recently; after the 2018 Olympics, she accused her former coach of harassment and abuse, then left the team. (The coach denied the allegations.) She became an American citizen two months ago—and a teammate of Meyers Taylor, her longtime rival and friend. Meyers Taylor, thirty-seven, had travelled to Beijing with her husband and their toddler, Nico, who has Down syndrome; there, she tested positive for COVID-19 and had to quarantine in a hotel for twelve days, forgoing the Opening Ceremony, at which she’d been slated to be a flag bearer for the U.S. Instead of training normally, on the ice track, she stayed in, lifting those giant barbells.
She emerged on Saturday looking determined. She had a good run, with a few imperfections: “A huge skid!” Schaaf cried out after one of the turns. That day, zooming along in her star-spangled car, she finished fourth. But, on Sunday, she came back with a vengeance, easily surpassing most of her competitors. Humphries won the gold, Meyers Taylor won the silver, and they brandished big American flags together, singing the national anthem side by side on the podium. On Friday, they’ll compete as rivals and teammates again, perhaps for the last time, with help from a pusher-brakeperson. Each will be driving her own sled.