KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Of the many uses for banana peels — scented candles, shoe polish, wart removal, compost, hydrated skin, at least according to search engine results — making a bobsled faster is not one of them.
But that didn't stop a U.S. team several years ago from trying it.
"Witchcraft," U.S. bobsled assistant coach and former Olympian Mike Kohn said. "The problem is that we're only on the track for 57 seconds. The rest of the time we're sitting around speculating and coming up with conspiracy theories about what people are doing."
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When man, machine and speed are involved, cheating — or bending the rules into the gray area — is nearby. There might not be a better example than NASCAR's history of rule-bending or flat-out cheating.
Bobsled, skeleton and luge are no different, with finger-pointing leveled at sliders and nations.
"It's part of our sport. If you ain't cheating, you ain't racing," said Canadian bobsled pilot Lyndon Rush, happy to discuss the topic. "If you're doping, that's not forgivable. And it's not always cheating. It's interpretation of the rules. You don't call it cheating."
Cheating and accusations of deceit at the sliding track are commonplace in the Olympics:
Canada's Jeff Pain accused Germany's skeleton racers of cheating at the start of the 2010 Olympics.
Germany's gold medal two-man bobsled team was accused of cheating — by countrymen — in the 2006 Torino Olympics.
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In the 1994 Lillehammer Games, American Brian Shimer, now the U.S. men's bobsled coach, had his sled disqualified when the FIBT ruled the runners — blades on the bottom of the sled — were too hot.
American Noelle Pikus-Pace was disqualified from a World Cup skeleton race this season for an extra piece of tape on her sled, with judges ruling it as an extra handle, which is illegal. Pikus-Pace vehemently denies doing it to cheat and said her sled passed prerace inspection.
Last season, the FIBT stripped Russian skeleton slider Maria Orlova of her World Cup points after judges discovered her sled had been manipulated and the FIBT inspection sticker on her sled had been doctored. Orlova is sixth halfway through the skeleton competition, one of three Russians in the top six.
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The most common accusations leveled are aimed at blades on a sled. In skeleton, they call it "greasing the runners," or applying a substance that tries to create less friction between the blade and the ice. In bobsled, heating the runners to reduce friction is a common complaint. Four year ago, Pain said the Germans were using illegal devices that acted like shock absorbers, a charge they denied.
However, there is strict sled inspection at World Cup events and even more so at the Olympics. Just like auto racing, sleds are inspected before and after a race.
"There's a very good technical commission," U.S. bobsled pilot Steve Holcomb said. "They do monitor everything. It's tough to hide stuff. They do a good job of regulating it."
This year, the American bobsleds — especially the new two-man sleds designed by BMW — have been scrutinized. At the Park City World Cup event in December, a nation accused the Americans of not meeting FIBT specifications. The USA made changes and still dominated on North American tracks.
"Everyone thinks they're doing something," said Rush, who acknowledges he's interested in the American sleds.
The Americans have had success this season. Holcomb, who won four-man gold in the 2010 Vancouver Games, won five two-man World Cup races, and Nick Cunningham and Cory Butner combined for five podium finishes.
The U.S. women, also driving BMW sleds, placed all three sleds on the podium during the World Cup season, and Elana Meyers and Jamie Greubel were 2-3 in the World Cup standings, each winning at least one race.
Holcomb sees the finger-pointing as a badge of honor. "I mean, if you're winning, you're cheating," Holcomb said. "The only way you beat me is if you're cheating. Some of it is in jest."
Whether it's applying melted banana peel or some other substance or manipulating the blades, subterfuge is a compelling aspect of the sliding sports.
The Americans are delighted they're the accused.
"I don't blame the Germans or anyone for the speculation, only because I've been there," Kohn said. "We've been in the position where we have not performed well and we have thought, 'Wow, these guys must be cheating.'
"It feels good to be on the end of someone speculating that you're cheating when you're not."
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