An Olympian explains: How to master bobsleigh with Christoph Langen

Up until the start of Beijing 2022, will unveil the secrets behind each of the 15 disciplines of the Winter Games through exclusive interviews with legends who accomplished greatness in their sports. After learning more about curling, luge, biathlon, figure skating and ski jumping, it's time to discover bobsleigh with a talk from a legend of the sport: two-time Olympic gold medallist Christoph Langen.

By Virgílio Franceschi Neto
Picture by Bongarts

"Better late than never."

It's a saying that is suitably apt for Christoph Langen who, at aged 24, first took up the bobsledding. But despite his late introduction to the sport, the German would go on to have a legendary career, winning four Olympic medals, including two golds.

Langen's athletic career initially began with the decathlon, but he always searched for something that could satisfy his need for speed.

Then he discovered bobsledding.

"I've always loved speed, ever since I was a kid. On my first run on the Königssee track I realized that was exactly what I wanted: speed, adrenaline, everything I've always been looking for since I was little. [Bobsleigh] gave it to me, since my first ever run, when I was 24."

-Christoph Langen

It didn't take long for Langen to excel in the sport, and in 1988 he was the brakeman of two German sleds (two-man and four-man) at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games. Four years later, Langen was back on the Olympic stage, this time as a pilot. The switch paid dividends, as he won bronze in the two-man at Albertville '92, before taking a further two medals at Nagano 1998 (gold in the four man; bronze in the two-man) and a final gold in the two man competition at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.

In addition to his glittering Olympic resumé, Langen is also a seven-time European champion and eight-time FIBT world champion. Following his retirement from his professional career, Langen briefly worked as a bobsleigh television commentator in Germany before becoming a coach, a role in which he has also found great success, winning eight world titles.

The 59-year-old is currently the head of the International Federation of Bobsleigh and Skeleton's (IBSF) department for materials, innovation and technology, but also spends his time coaching up-and-coming young bobsleigh talents.

Langen sat down with to discuss his passion for bobsleigh and reminiscing over his legendary career in the sport.

Below is a transcript of that interview, slightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Japan - February 21: Nagano 1998, 4-men bobsleigh; GER II - Gold: Christoph Langen, Markus Zimmermann, Marco Jakobs, Olaf Hampel
Picture by Bongarts (OC): How did you discover bobsleigh and what made you fall in love with it to the point of deciding to become a professional athlete?

Christoph Langen (CL): I got into the sport because of track and field. I always loved speed; when I was a kid I was a “speed junkie” and after the first run at the Königssee track I knew exactly this was what I wanted: the speed, the adrenaline, everything I was looking for when I was a child, this is what sports gave me. And I had that feeling from my very first bobsleigh run, when I was 24 years old.

OC: Do you still participate in bobsleigh after retiring from professional competition? What’s your daily schedule like now?

CL: I haven't finished with bobsleigh, because after my retirement I made the jump from training and competing to coaching. Now I try to help young athletes fall in love with the sport, just like I did, and I try to make them aware of mistakes I made when I was an athlete. Now I have a coaching career at the IBSF which allows me to further develop the sport. When I was an athlete my aim was to be successful, and now my aim is to transfer my knowledge to young athletes and also give some feedback to the federation.

Picture by Bongarts

OC: Is there any particular athlete who inspired you or that you consider to be the legend of your sport?

CL: There were so many big athletes when I got into the sport, including Gustav Weder, from Switzerland; Wolfgang Hoppe, from Germany, Harald Czudaj, from Germany to; or Brian Schimer, from the United States of America. And of course there are many great names in the history of the sport from the past, like Eugenio Monti.

However, when I look back on my career, having started late in the sport I did not have enough time to think about the legends; all I had to do was improve my physical ability and skills that one needs for the sport. The only aim I had was just to be faster than my competitors.

OC: If you had to explain bobsleigh and your love for it in a few words, what would you say?

CL: It is quite hard to explain something that you have given your whole life to in a few words; but I would say there are several key points to bobsleigh.

The first is the team spirit that we have in the sport; not just between the athletes in one sled, but between all the competing teams from around the world. I would also say that the sheer speed of the sport takes your breath away; bobsleigh takes you to the edge of your physical limitations. Lastly, bobsleigh does have that element of danger, since we're moving at such high speeds, but you feel that adrenaline from the danger - from challenging it. I would say that these things explain my love for the sport.

Bobsleigh in one minute

  • The basics: Bobsleigh is known as "Formula 1 on ice"; a team sport where competitors race down an ice track in two and four-athlete sleds (new for Beijing will be the women's monobob event). The sport's origins come from 1860's Switzerland, when teams started making timed descents on narrow, winding and steep circuits. The first competitions emerged at the end of the 19th century. The sleds are between 2,7m (doubles) and 3,8m (quartet) in length, while the weight of athletes and sleds cannot exceed 340kg for the two-women, 390kg for the two-man, and 630kg for the four-man disciplines. The sled blades are made of steel and their sets depend on the type of course and the temperature of the track. Athletes need to wear helmets and their shoes have 500 tiny needles in the sole, which provide the necessary grip on the ice for traction when the teams first push the sled. The track path is between 1,200m and 1,500m and must have at least 15 turns.
  • Olympic History: In 1924, at the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, the first 4-man bobsled competition took place. In 1932, at the Lake Placid Games, the 2-man event was added in a format that remains to this day. The first female bobsled competition — with 2 women — took place in 2002.
  • Olympic medal leaders (nations): Germany currently tops the leaderboard with 13 gold medals (not counting the five from the German Democratic Republic and one from the former German Federal Republic when these countries comprised the current German territory); followed by Switzerland with 10 and the United States with seven.
  • Athletes Olympic medal leaders: The top three are German: Bodgan Musiol won seven medals (one gold, five silver and one bronze) between 1980 and 1994; Kevin Kuske won six medals (four gold and two silver) between 2002 and 2018; Wolfgang Hoppe also has six medals (two golds, three silvers and one bronze).

OC: What's the thing you love most about bobsleigh and the most challenging part of it?

CL: What I love the most, especially in four-man, is the power you need to have in the start of the race. Four athletes need to move a 210kg piece of equipment with as much power as they can in order to generate the most speed at the start of the race, which is key. When you're piloting the sled, you feel the G-force as your speed increases and you continue your descent down the track. You can feel every little crack in the ice; you are so close to the ice that you feel everything.

The most challenging thing is that pilots really need to find the right driving technique for each track. Every track is unique, so you need to drive differently and find a way to control your sled; this is probably the biggest challenge of the sport.

OC: Could you share the top three moments of your career?

CL: Two of the three top moments of my career are related to the Olympic Games.

The first moment was at the end of my career at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. There were a few sleds that were above us by the tiniest of margins, and when we were about to do our final run I knew that the next seconds would decide if we would win gold or not. When I think about it now, I still get goosebumps; it was like it happened yesterday. It was such an intense moment of my career because I knew I was coming to the end of my career. What I learned from this moment gave me so much for my life after I retired.

The other moment was the European Championships in St Moritz, Switzerland – you know St Moritz is the last natural track in bobsleigh – the top eight had a difference of 0.15 seconds between them before the last run and we were placed sixth. There was a lot of crashes and a lot of pressure before going to the last run; a lot of good athletes had already crashed. My brakemen came to me and asked: 'Are you sure you will make it to the finish?' because a lot of good athletes crashed. I looked at him and said: 'Are you crazy, guys? What are you talking about? I mean, if you push, if you break the start records we will win this race, do not ask me if I will make it to the finish. This is not a question. Just push as hard as you can and if you do the start record I will make sure we will make it to the finish.' So, then my brakemen turned around and said 'Ok, let´s break the start record'. So we broke the start record, we had the best run and got the European Championship. From place 6th to 1st.

The last one was at the Albertville Games in 1992. One year prior I was still a brakeman and had won the World Championship (as a brakeman), but I decided to move to the pilot position one year before the Olympics, even though we still needed to qualifying for the Games. Nobody in the German team really believed in me, yet we were still able to qualify and win a medal.

Everything was fine until I got to the press conference after the medal ceremony. The gold medalist Gustav Weder, from Switzerland, was there. So they ask him how did he drive at the track and he said: 'This track has a special character; you do not need to find the shortest way, you have to do longer turns and curves in order to generate the speed and win.' I was so happy to hear this because it was almost impossible to qualify as a pilot and win an Olympic medal in one year. At that time I realised: 'That´s it! This was my mistake! The whole week I did it wrong! I could have been sitting where he [Weder] is if I had driven like him. I could have won gold in my first Games as a pilot!' It was a weird sensation; almost like winning a medal, and not winning one. Winning because nobody believed in me, and not having one because I realized I could have won gold.

Christian Reich and Steve Anderhub, silver, of Switzerland, Christoph Langen and Markus Zimmermann of Germany, gold, and Martin Annen and Beat Hefti, bronze, of Switzerland all receive their medals for the men's two-man bobsled at Olympic Medals Plaza during the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

OC: What does it mean to you to have competed at the Olympics? Outside of competing, is there a personal memory you’ll always remember from being at the Games?

CL: When I was a young boy I always watched the Summer and Winter Olympics. For me, the whole word stands still during the Games; everyone wants to see athletes competing. Nobody discusses war, or the other terrible things happening in the world. That moved me and made me want to be a part of it. No matter your origin, who you are and where you come from, it is just about competing in a peaceful way.

When I qualified for my Games at Calgary '88, it was the best moment of my career - outside of competing. I remember the moment when we were waiting to go into the stadium for the Opening Ceremony. We were standing outside, and it was absolutely freezing, -20°, -25° Celsius. We were trying to keep ourselves warm and there were Canadian policemen on horses trying to march up and down to protect the athletes from the wind and the cold, but the wind was so strong that the policemen couldn’t march in a straight line. But when we did get into the stadium, marching behind the flag of my country was the most incredible moment. The pride I felt is difficult to explain.

OC: How can you explain your nation’s historic success in bobsleigh?

CL: I think it has to do with the sports system we have developed in Germany. So everything the athlete produces is a reflection of the system. You need to show the right attitude, ambition and determination to succeed. In Germany, we have a constant support system from a young age that supports your development in your sport. It has a very high professional structure in every level, and it also means the athletes are secure; they are either in the military or the police. The system makes sure that the athlete can focus on their training without having to worry too much about finances or things like that.

The Germany-1 team of Christoph Langen and Markus Zimmermann in action in the Men's Two-Man Bobsleigh event at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games in Utah

OC: What can we expect from Beijing 2022 in bobsleigh? Who are your favourites to win a medal in Beijing 2022? Is there a young athlete in bobsleigh that you think people should keep an eye on?

CL: Obviously there are challenges because of the Covid-19 pandemic that we all have faced, but I believe that the athletes will be able to overcome these challenges and the pandemic will have a minor influence or no influence on the Games. It is not easy, but they can adapt to the circumstances; I really expect to have an exciting competition.

When we come to the favourites, we have Francesco Friedrich from Germany, who has dominated in the past years, but it will be a challenge for him to defend his title from PyeongChang because there are younger athletes in Germany, like Hans Hannighofer and Johannes Lochner, who could challenge him. And we also have a good bunch of athletes coming from Latvia, Switzerland, Canada and from the US that can make Francesco’s life harder. We should not forget the Chinese athletes either, because they have the advantage of training at the Olympic track, which means they can test and adapt materials to the specific characteristics of the track; none of the athletes from other parts of the world have been at the Olympic track yet. The first time they will encounter it will be during the Games. They will have no time to study and analyze the track, so the Chinese can be considered among the favourites.

Japan - February 15: Nagano 1998; Bobsleigh 2-men: Christoph Langen (GER) and Markus Zimmermann (GER) - bronze. 
Picture by Bongarts

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