How the Olympic Sport of Skeleton Got Its Name

The Olympic sport of Skeleton dates back to the 19th century, but the origin of the name remains up for debate. Here’s a look at the history behind the sport

Gold medallist Hannah Neise of Team Germany slides during the Women's Skeleton heat 4 at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, Feb. 12, 2022, in Yanqing, China.
Alex Pantling/Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine a more ominous name for a sport than skeleton. So what is behind the puzzling title? One-hundred forty years of history.

Similar to its sledding sisters, luge and bobsledding, skeleton dates back to the late 19th century in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The resort town in southeast Switzerland is a mecca of winter sports, having hosted the Winter Games twice (1928 and 1948). 

The first skeleton track was built in 1884 by Swiss vacationers to St. Moritz. Stretching three-quarters of a mile from St. Moritz to Celerina, the run was dubbed the “Cresta Run,” named after a small settlement along the trail. This gave rise to the first iteration of competition in skeleton, or toboggan as it's sometimes referred as. 

By 1987 the sport had already undergone a major change when athletes started competing headfirst after recording significantly faster times when competing on their stomachs. 

Skeleton continued to evolve over the next century, developing more advanced techniques to yield higher speeds and establishing its own federation before appearing in the 1928 Olympics in the sport’s birthplace -- St. Moritz. It returned to the Olympics twenty years later when St. Moritz won the bid to host the fifth Winter Games and was permanently added to the Olympics program in 2002. 

The etymology of the sport remains up for debate. 

An Englishman named Mr. Child first debuted the metal sled in 1982, leading some to speculate that the sled, which resembled a skeleton, inspired the name of the sport. Others suggest the word “Skele” derives from a poorly translated anglicization of the Norwegian word “Kjaelke,” meaning toboggan or sled.

While the verdict remains out on the name skeleton, there’s no denying the sport has etched its way into Olympic history.

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