February 2, 2006
Flirting with danger
Luge not for faint of heart
GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

Vic Emery is known as the man who led the Canadian men's bobsled team to the gold medal at the 1964 Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria.

But few are aware the former general manager of the famous Savoy Hotel in London, England, was also the first Canadian luge champion and popularized the sport in Canada.

What is the dangerous sport like, you may ask?

Imagine yourself going down an icy slope at 150 km/h, lying on your back, with no steering wheel and no brakes. Your sole source of steering comes from your feet, shoulders and legs. You are bordered on both sides by icy walls. Your only protection is a helmet. Still feel like trying it?

It's obviously a very risky sport. So risky, at the inaugural Olympics for luge in 1964, British competitor Kazimierz Kay died while training on the Olympic track two weeks before the start of the Games. Over the years, other competitors had close calls but the sport survived all the criticism.

The word luge is French for 'racing sled.' Luge has its roots in the 16th century but didn't become an Olympic sport until 1964. The luge sled usually has two wooden runners connected by two steel bridges with a seat slung between. The surface of each runner is plastic or steel.

The first organized meeting for luge occurred in Switzerland in 1883.

Thirty years later, the Internationale Schlittensportverband (International Sled Sports Federation) was founded in Dresden, Germany.

This body governed the sport until 1935 when the organization was rolled into the FIBT (International Bobsleigh & Tobogganing Federation).

Olympic organizers decided to put luge into the 1964 Games in place of the skeleton event (later re-incorporated into the Games) and that decision led to the first world luge championships in 1965 at Oslo, Norway. Two years later, the International Luge Federation (FIL) was founded.

Austrian slider Marti Tietze, who won the European championships four of five times in the mid-1930s, is credited with introducing the flexible sled. With that new sled, the competitors could steer by moving their feet along the front runners.

Prior to his innovation, competitors controlled their steering by touching the track with their hands, which was not only dangerous but also slowed them down.

The German women are currently dominating the luge scene and could sweep the medals in Turin. The most successful luger of all-time is Germany's Georg Hackl, who has won medals in the past five Olympics (silver-gold-gold-gold-silver).

Though injured much of this World Cup season, Hackl hopes to be back on his sled in Turin trying for astonishing sixth-straight Olympics with a medal, which would be a first.

It took 34 years for a North American team to break the Olympic medal domination of Austria, Germany, Italy and the former Soviet Union.

In 1998 in Nagano, Japan, the Americans captured the doubles silver and bronze medals.

THE SPORT

There are three events in the Olympic luge competition: Men's singles, women's singles and doubles (men and/or women).

In singles luge, each racer takes four runs down the track.

The times from the four runs are added and the racer with the fastest total wins.

In doubles luge, each team takes two runs.

The time on both runs is added for a final time.

Lugers use the same track as the bobsledders.

Luge differs from skeleton in the position of the body on the sled with skeleton racers lying on their stomachs and travelling head first.

The strategy and segments of the luge race must all be brought together for a racer to win.

At the starting gate, the racers grasp handles that help them launch their sleds down the ice.

They will paddle along the ice for about 10 ft. to increase their initial momentum. To do this, they use gloves with small spikes on the fingertips for better grip.

With the limited vision that comes from lying on one's back, feet first, the racers have to navigate through 17 curves over less than a mile in less than a minute.

With no brakes, the racers stop their sleds by sitting up and putting their feet firmly down on the ice.

To gain an edge on rivals, some sliders were caught heating the runners of their sleds to improve their speed. The rules, at the time of the 1964 Olympics, didn't ban the heating of runners.

But the rules were changed after those Olympics and, four years later, the East German women's team was disqualified for heating their runners.

Weight plays a major role in the events, with 165 lb. allowed for women and 198 lb. for men.

Competitiors can 'make weight' by adding weights if necessary.

Racing suits are limited to a maximum of 8.8 lb.

TRAINING

Calgary's Chris Dornan of Canada Olympic Park says the sport puts unique demands on athletes.

"Once they reach the senior status, they take part in physical fitness training, mainly for the upper body. Arm power is very important," he said.

"Because of the G-force, the men and women competing in luge need very strong necks. They train six days in the gym because it is a full-time job.

"Unlike football, baseball or hockey, and the influence of the G-forces on the body, lugers can do only two to three slides a day down the track."

Lugers require not only explosive and powerful upper bodies to get a great start to the race, they also need incredible abdominal strength and lower-body balance and strength to steer and stabilize the sled on its way down the course.

To build the necessary upper-body strength, lugers will do extensive weight training.

To build the explosiveness, they will do cardiovascular training for the entire body through interval training.

DID YOU KNOW? ...

Europeans get credit for inventing luge but the sport was popular with Mohawks in Quebec.