Friday, 30 September 2016

St Moritz Things to Do Part 3: Take in the Olympic Sites

St Moritz hosted the Winter Olympics in 1928 and 1948 and is getting set to host the 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. It's difficult to avoid the excitement in the town surrounding next February's event - countdown clocks, posters, banners, that sort of thing - but sites and points of interest from the previous Olympics can also still be seen around the area.

The facilities which the town seems most proud of are the bob and skeleton routes used for the Olympics. When I first visited St Mortiz in 2010, I visited the start of these, acknowledged their existence, and thought nothing more of it. But when I spotted this guy (picture below) when taking the bus from St Moritz to Samedan, and realised how close it is to the road, I just had to see exactly where the course went. And so, on Sunday last, 501 days before the opening of the 2018 Games in ‎Pyeongchang,‎ I took a little trip down Winter Olympic history.

St Moritz and the Winter Olympics
St Moritz is the birthplace of resort holidays and one of the oldest ski resorts in the world. It hosted the second edition of the Winter Olympics in 1928 (Chamonix in France hosted the first) - which saw 464 athletes from 25 nations compete for 14 sets of medals in six sports - and again in 1948 when it's neutrality during World War II made it the ideal candidate and the existence of the 1928 facilities gave it a head start in the relatively short run-in period. This time, 669 participants from 28 countries competed for 22 sets of medals in alpine and Nordic skiing, bobsleigh and skeleton, figure skating, speed skating and ice hockey.

St. Moritz-Celerina Olympia Bobsleigh Run
Switzerland won 10 medals at the 1948 Games, including gold and silver in the two-man bobsleigh, and it is the bobsleigh run that forms one of the main remaining Olympic sites of interest. The track is constructed from scratch every year and is the only naturally refrigerated bobsleigh run in the world. It was first used in 1904, making it the world's oldest too.

Following the first snow in mid-late November, the skilled workers take three weeks to construct the track using about 15,000 cubic metres of snow and 7,000 cubic metres of water. Technology means that the construction has gotten somewhat easier over the years, but this is still a very labour intensive task. While the same track area is used each year, and great care is taken to level out the ground exactly, the natural construction means that there are minimal changes in the alignment from year to year - adding an extra skill element for the bobsleigh drivers. 

This video gives you some idea of how, each winter, the summer route is turned into 'the largest ice sculpture in the world'.

There is also a great selection of photos showing track construction on the track's website.

During the summer months you can take a walk down the course and get some sense of what it might be like to ride the 1,722 metre track at more than 130 kph. The start is off Via Maistra, just beyond the Klum Hotel.

If you visit during the winter you can experience the run for yourself in a 4-man bob (with an experienced driver). But you might want to start saving now - the cost for this 75 second run is 250 CHF (about €225); that's more than €3 per adrenaline-filled second!

The Cresta Run
The Cresta skeleton course - one of the few tracks in the world dedicated solely to skeleton - can be accessed just across the road from the Bob Run (the junction entrance), though it's start (top) is a bit higher, close to the leaning tower and Cresta monument. It's finish is just beyond the finish of the bob run, close to the village of Celerina. Like the bob run, the Cresta Run is constructed freshly each year. It using the natural topography of the hill, and banks of earth as a buttress for iced packed snow.

The sport of skeleton originated and developed in the Graub√ľnden region of Switzerland, and was featured on the Olympic programmes in both 1928 an 1948 - the only occasions it was contested until it was added permanently to the programme in 2002; the year in which women also first contested skeleton at Olympic level.

The run is owned and operated by the all-male St. Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC) created by British military officers in 1885. Women have been excluded from the course since the late 1920s, because of injuries sustained by female racers and the never proven belief that excessive sledding causes breast cancer. Women are sometimes, by invitation, allowed to race from the Junction start only. St. Moritz has hosted 22 World Bobsleigh/Skeleton Championships, but these races have been held on the bobsleigh course.

The Olympic Stadium and other sites
The Olympic Stadium - now a driving range and located close to the start of the bobsleigh run - hosted the opening and closing ceremonies for the Games, as well as the skating events. The stadium building is essentially unaltered since 1948 on the outside; internally it has been converted into residential apartments.

Nearby, the Klum Pavilion, which also played a role in the Olympic Games, is currently being restored and will be used for the medal presentation for the 2017 FIS World Championships.

The original Olympic ski jump (Olympiaschanze), which had been in use until 2006, was still in place when I visited in 2012. The original jump has since been taken down and the area is currently a construction site. According to the St Moritz website: 'The regular ski jump is being rebuilt (hill size 106 m), with the addition of a new training ski jump (67 m). Two jumps for younger skiers (47 m and 17 m) are also being renovated and fitted with mats for use in summer.'

Finally, the Olympic stone, which commemorates St. Moritz hosting the Games on two occasions and lists the medal winners from both Games, is located at Plazza Paracelsus 2, just off Via Mezdi, in St. Moritz Bad (by the swimming pool).

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