Answer to Map #29

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Answer: This dot map shows the locations of currently functional bobsleigh and skeleton tracks.

Several of you, when submitting your answers, wondered what would possess us to make such a map. Apparently, word has not yet reached everybody that bobsleigh is an awesome sport.

By far, the most common incorrect answer this week was that this map depicted the locations of cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics. As mentioned in Thursday’s hint, such a map would have considerable overlap with this map, since bobsleigh tracks are often constructed in preparation to host the Winter Olympics. But there would also be some key differences. Eight cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics do not currently have functional bobsleigh tracks (Turin, Sarajevo, Sapporo, Grenoble, Squaw Valley, Oslo, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and Chamonix). In addition, six cities that have never hosted the Winter Olympics do have bobsleigh tracks (four in Germany, one in Latvia, and one in Russia).

In the Winter Olympics, three sports take place on the same tracks: bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton. All three sports developed in St. Moritz, Switzerland, which was one of the first cities with a cold climate to make an effort to attract tourists during the winter. But luge is different from bobsleigh and skeleton in that you can do it on a shorter and less technologically advanced track. Moreover, if you woke up one morning and decided that you wanted to try one of these three sports, luge would be the one that you could attempt as a beginner with the least likelihood of experiencing a fatal crash. Consequently, there are a lot more luge tracks in the world than there are tracks that are suitable for bobsleigh and skeleton. You can do the luge in “natural” tracks made from packed snow and ice on the side of a hill, whereas bobsleigh and skeleton require the building of artificial tracks. So if you just answered that this map showed the locations of luge tracks, without mentioning bobsleigh or skeleton, then you owe yourself a trip to Negaunee, Michigan, to try out their luge, which is open to the public. Also, you didn’t earn any points in our game. We’re strict!

We mentioned from the outset that we made this map in part because we needed something fun in the wake of a few very serious maps. But there are also some important lessons to be drawn from this dot map. Increasingly, countries that wish to host the Winter Olympics must spend a tremendous amount of money to construct the necessary facilities. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, cost about $50 billion, making them the most expensive sporting event in history. For the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the bobsleigh, skeleton, and luge will be run at the Alpensia Sliding Centre. That venue alone cost about $115 million to build.

The 2022 Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, China, which will become the first city ever to host both Summer and Winter games. Beijing narrowly beat out Almaty, Kazakhstan, in the bidding to be the host site. Cities in Sweden, Poland, Ukraine, and Norway initially bid to host in 2022, but all four countries had to pull out for political and/or financial considerations. Put simply, the skyrocketing cost of hosting the Olympics means that it is increasingly difficult for democratic governments that are accountable to their citizens to justify the expense. It seems likely that, going forward, we will see more bid processes come down to non-democratic countries that, like China and Kazakhstan, have checkered human rights records.

It is also important to note that the expense of hosting the Olympic Games has long been an issue. Tuesday’s hint drew your attention to the fact that there has never been a bobsleigh track in the state of California. That’s because the organizers of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley simply decided that a bobsleigh track would be too expensive to build. As a result, bobsleigh was not contested in 1960—the only time it has been left off the Olympic program.

Bobsleigh was contested in Turin in 2006. During the winter of 2011–2012, the bobsleigh track in nearby Cesana was forced to shut down because local authorities could not afford to keep it open. The base of the track is still standing, but the 45 tons of ammonia used to refrigerate it have been removed and repurposed.

The saddest story of all, however, is the fate of the bobsleigh track on Trebević in Sarajevo. During the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, the heights of the track were used as a position for Serbian artillery. You can see what is left of the overgrown, graffiti-covered concrete track by watching this video of a mountain biker riding down it.

One consequence of the fact that there are only 19 functioning bobsleigh tracks is that national teams from countries that do not have tracks must train abroad. So far, seven of the eight events of the 2016–2017 Bobsleigh World Cup have been completed. Each stop has had three events—two-man, four-man, and two-woman. That means that a total of sixty-two medals (gold, silver, and bronze) have been awarded this year. Would you like to hazard a guess how many of those sixty-two have been earned by countries that don’t have their own track? That’s right: zero. While all of us who grew up watching Cool Runnings remain fans of the Jamaican bobsleigh team, it’s hard to be optimistic about its chances in a sport that inherently favors an elite few.

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