LUGE

COURTING DANGER

In the sport of luging, serious accidents are unavoidable

ANN WALMSLEY February 2 1988
LUGE

COURTING DANGER

In the sport of luging, serious accidents are unavoidable

ANN WALMSLEY February 2 1988

COURTING DANGER

LUGE

In the sport of luging, serious accidents are unavoidable

In their helmets, highlaced boots and skintight rubberized bodysuits, they look like futuristic human cannonballs. And in the harrowing sport of luge, athletes are just that. Lying flat on their backs on a narrow sleigh, they hurtle feetfirst down an icy chute at speeds of up to 120 km/h. For roughly 40 seconds the pressure that flattens them against the sleigh could be up to seven times the force of gravitytwice that exerted on an astronaut during a shuttle launch. Steering with their ankles, lugers are virtually blinded by the speed at which they travel. A minute error could send them crashing into the wall or off the track altogether. “But we are not so crazy as people think,” says Marie-Claude Doyon, 22, Canada’s top-ranked female luger. “When you lie there alone, you can control your fears.”

In North America, where luge is still in its infancy, qualifying for the Olympics is a victory in itself. In both the singles and the pair events, the medal race in Calgary will likely be led by the agile East German and Soviet teams that, together, won seven of the nine medals at the 1984 Olympics. Last fall, East Germany’s Cerstin Schmidt, 24, the 1987 women’s champion, was sliding consistently faster than her rivals and so were her male teammates, Jörg Hoffman and Jochen Pietzsch, both 24, in the doubles event. The reigning Olympic champion of the male singles competition is Paul Hildgartner, 35, a jovial Italian policeman who is a master of control. But Austrian Markus Prock, 23, has clocked the fastest time yet in men’s competition on Calgary’s course:

Luge, which is the French word for sleigh, had practical origins several centuries ago as a means of travel in the alpine regions of Austria, Poland,

Germany, Northern Italy and Russia. But since the late 1800s, when a group of Swiss hotel owners launched it as a racing sport, luge has been synonymous with danger. When it became an Olympic event in 1964, critics protested that the sport was too perilous. Their fears were well-founded: two weeks before the first Olympic event in Innsbruck, Austria, a member of the British team died after a crash during a trial run. Stricter safety regulations have eliminated fatalities in recent years, but accidents seem unavoidable. Says Hildgartner, who broke his back on a bumpy natural ice run in 1981: “Certainly I know fear. After a

heavy injury, I am scared to go down the chute again.”

Top lugers require the cool reflexes of a racing car driver and the muscular strength of a shot-putter. The force with which they push off can make a difference of seconds in a race that is often won by milliseconds. Says Schmidt: “What is most crucial is your concentration, which can never be relaxed. To do so is to invite the worst kind of disaster.” The potential for mistakes doubles in the two-man event, in which one luger lies flat on top of his teammate. Even when visibility is fair, the person on the bottom must help the driver navigate by feel rather than sight. Like many lugers, Andre Benoit, 25, the man supporting driver Robert Gasper, 29, on Canada’s best doubles team, consulted an optometrist last year to learn how to use his peripheral vision more effectively. Says Benoit: “You are not sure whether you want to trust your feeling.” Lugers also depend heavily on the performance of their custom-built 48-lb. sleigh. During international training last November, the East Germans hid their sleighs under slipcovers. Says Canadian coach Carole Keyes: “It is a definite faux pas to go too close without an invitation.” When the sleighs are unveiled at Canada Olympic Park, lugers will be vying to set new speed records. Still, a few have complained that the new track is too slow. “I would be very surprised if there is any crashing,” says Gasper. “I prefer a track with more challenge.” But for spectators, the luge events will be as riveting as ever, a flash of daring and drama on a path of ice.

ANN WALMSLEY

CHARLOTTE PEDERGNANA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

JOHN HOWSE