Don't know anything about luge? No problem. Here are all the basics you need to know before the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

By Connor Grossman
December 04, 2017

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea are right around the corner! That means it's time to watch sports you might not have seen in four years. To help you feel at least a little more informed—either to impress your friends or fake your way through a conversation with an actual expert—SI will be providing rookie's guides to each of the 15 sports. These will be published daily, Monday through Friday, from December 4-22.

Luge is one of many Winter Olympic sports that most people only watch every four years. Luckily, it's one of the easiest events to keep track of, as each sled tries only to achieve the quickest time down the course. Here's everything you need to know (and more) about following luge at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

What's going on during an event?

Quite simply, a race against the clock. Lugers bolt down the track one at a time and try to record the fastest time, which is measured up to one-thousandth of a second. It's one of the most precisely timed sports because of the microscopic variance in each performance. 

Much like bobsled, the most important part of the event is at the start. Lugers sit atop their sleds, hands gripped around two handles they'll use to launch themselves, slowly rocking back and forth in what's called the "block" motion. From there they go into "compression:" lugers push back and fully extend their arms, lurching their upper-body as far forward as they can, essentially folding themselves in half. The final step is "extension," in which lugers thrust themselves forward from the compression position and begin gliding down the starting ramp.

Athletes even use spiked gloves on the ice to push themselves faster down the initial slope. It's somewhat of a last-ditch effort to maximize acceleration before lugers slide into a plank position atop their sleds and let gravity take over. 

What are the different kinds of Olympic luge events?

Three different Olympic luge events have been in place since 1964: men's singles, women's singles and mixed doubles. A fourth event called team relay was added in the 2014 Sochi games. Both men and women are eligible to participate in doubles, but teams almost always consist of two males. 

Team relay features the fastest women's single, men's single and doubles sled hurdling down the course successively. Once one sledder reaches the bottom of the run and slaps an overhead touchpad, the next sled takes off. Typically the women's single sled starts the event, followed by the men's and then doubles. 

PyeongChang features one course for the men and women to compete on, with the women starting about .09 miles closer to the finish than the men. Every participant in the team relay launches off from the women's start.

How are winners decided?

The men's and women's singles events take place over two days, with each sledder getting four runs down the course. The doubles event happens in one day when each tandem gets only two runs on the track. The participant(s) with the quickest combined time win the gold medal. Meanwhile the team relay is a one-time-only event. 

How fast do lugers go?

In a true display of flying by the seat of their pants, lugers can approach 90 mph. The Guinness World Record for a street (not ice) luge is 101.9 mph

What do I need to know about the sled?

This may come as a surprise, but there are no brakes. Lugers decelerate on a long straightaway at the end of the course. From the sled to the uniforms, luge equipment is designed to be as aerodynamic and minimalist as possible.

Here's a thorough rundown of what each luger wears and uses. When it comes to the sled, there are five components: pod, handles, bridge, runners, and steel. The luger lays in the fiberglass pod—the most visible part of the sled—which provides no head support and usually extends down to the racer's knees. The handles allow the participant to hold onto something while coasting down the track in excess of 80 mph.

The two sharp pieces of steel are the only part of the sled that make contact with the ice. The steel is attached to long fiberglass rods called runners, which attach to the pod via a metal "bridge." Lugers can use their legs to apply pressure to the curled front of the runner (called the bow) to steer the sled.

A singles sled can weigh up to 55.1 pounds while a doubles sled can weigh up to 66.1. 

Who are the favorites?

Official favorites won't be known until the each country's qualifiers and rosters are decided in the coming weeks. In the meantime, history provides a pretty clear betting guide. 

Germany owns 31 luge gold medals while all other countries combine for 13. In that vein, Germans Felix Loch (men's singles), Tatjana Huefner (women's singles), Natalie Geisenberger (women's singles), and Wendl Tobias and Arlt Tobias (doubles) are all successful lugers worth keeping an eye on. Germany earned all four gold medals in luge during the Sochi games.

A few Americans to keep track of include Tucker West (men's singles), Eric Hamlin (women's singles), and the pairing of Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman (doubles).

It's also of note that historically, most lugers only specialize in one event (excluding team relay): doubles or singles. Latvian brothers Juris and Andris Šics, for example, exclusively participate in the doubles event together, which they took bronze in at Sochi in 2014.

How do you qualify?

Up to 110 lugers will participate in the PyeongChang games. Spots will be allocated based on the Olympic Season World Cup Ranking List that will be posted on New Year's Eve. Of the 10 possible lugers that countries are allowed to send, three may be sent for men's singles, three for women's singles, and four (two teams) for doubles.

The U.S. qualifies their athletes based on their placement in five World Cup races that take place across November and December, culminating in the final race at Lake Placid on Dec. 15-16. American qualifiers will be announced at Lake Placid on Dec. 16.

An in-depth look at the qualification process can be found here.

How did the sport come to be?

In one of luge's many parallels to bobsled, it also originated in mid-19th century Switzerland. The word luge comes from the French word for sled, and it's been a Winter Olympics staple since 1964. 

The first American-made artificial tracks (meaning the curves and slopes were sculpted in) was built in Lake Placid for the 1980 games, followed by one erected in Park City, Utah for the 2002 Olympics. The U.S. has never come closer to mirroring the luge success of Germany, though, with five total medals in luge to the Germans' 75.

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