In Olympic luge, it's Germany, and everyone else
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) Asked a pair of simple questions about German luge dominance this week, U.S. Olympic slider Chris Mazdzer didn't hesitate with his answers.
So, how can Felix Loch be beaten at the Olympics?
''He crashes,'' Mazdzer said.
And is there a way for Natalie Geisenberger to lose?
''Same exact way,'' Mazdzer said. ''Or not showing up.''
There you have it. If the Germans - led by Loch and Geisenberger, who were absolutely dominant on the way to World Cup overall titles this season - somehow do not win luge gold at the Sochi Games, the most probable causes would likely be either a wreck or having the team somehow forget the Olympics are happening.
Sounds silly, but it really isn't. There have been 117 medals awarded in Olympic luge to date: Germans have 70 of them, while the rest of the world has 47. A country roughly half the size of Texas is beyond dominant in sliding, winning more than half the medals awarded on this season's World Cup circuit and almost always shining brightest on the Olympic stage.
Luge has been part of 13 previous Olympics. Germans have led the medal count 12 times. And they almost certainly will again in Sochi.
''Of course it gets frustrating,'' said Canada's Alex Gough, who was second to Geisenberger in this season's women's World Cup points standings - but hasn't beaten the German star in any of the last 23 international races in which they've both competed. ''It's tough to work as hard as you do and to have the Germans be as good as they are, but that's part of our sport and it's been that way since as long as I can remember, as long as I've been in the sport.''
Gough is 26. It's been that way since long before she was alive.
For the longest time, Germans got their biggest challenges from, well, Germans. East Germany vs. West Germany was one of the best rivalries in the sport, and when the nations unified, the divide between being the No. 1 and No. 2 team in the world got considerably wider. Austria, Italy, Russia and the U.S. have had some challengers to the German luge thrones from time to time, but when talking about sustained excellence, only Deutschland need apply.
''I don't think they feel that they must win,'' said Georg Hackl, a German luge legend who now coaches the world's best team. ''They feel that they can win, if they do right. They are confident because these athletes that you see, they are physically good, they are good at their task and their skills in luge, and they perform very technically. These athletes are the result of a very big process of ... ha, it's hard to say in English ... auslese.''
Loosely translated, that's the word Germans use to describe the process of selecting the right grapes to make outstanding white wine.
The process also works when finding those who will deliver gold medals.
Germany has four international-caliber sliding tracks, more than any other nation. Children are introduced to sliding at a young age, usually several years before kids in other countries get invited to try the sport. By the time a young slider reaches any sort of national-team level in Germany, he or she usually has beaten out hundreds of other challengers for the spot, so it's only the best of the best who then have a chance to be the elite.
''There are many reasons for success,'' Geisenberger said. ''In Germany, we have four luge tracks. Big countries like America, two. Some countries, one or less. That's a very big reason. With four tracks, many more children start luge and the top is very high. We've got coaches, we've got materials, no one studies or works, we have time to train and those are the main reasons for our success.''
So in Sochi, all eyes are on the Germans, and they savor that feeling.
There have been 39 Olympic luge races; Germans have medaled in 36 of them. Lump the days of East and West Germany together, and what's now Germany has swept gold, silver and bronze on the Olympic podium 10 times. It's not unthinkable that they could do that again this year.
Then again, no one is conceding anything, either. Erin Hamlin of the U.S. is the 2009 world champion. Another American, Kate Hansen, won a World Cup race this season - albeit one where the top three Germans skipped the event, but a World Cup nonetheless.
''Kate and I have both beat them,'' Hamlin said, when asked if Germany can lose. ''So I think that answers that question.''