"They call this Olympic team? I think so. But what you expect from such athletes? They don't have no practices. They don't have no program. This is Olympic team? I am surprise."
—Piotr Rogowski, Polish refugee recently named head coach of the U.S. Olympic luge team.
A luge is a small sled, a basic tool of transportation considerably older than the wheel. Drawings scratched on cave walls during the Neolithic age depict luges at work as movers of stone and haulers of wild animal meat. In the intervening 5,000 years, the relationship between man and his trusty luge has undergone spectacular change—from a slow and sensible conveyor of burdens, it has been transformed into a sleek vehicle of speed, terrible risk and a certain beauty.
High above the medieval Tyrolean village of Igls, which is in turn perched high above the medieval Tyrolean city of Innsbruck, lies the architectural centerpiece of the XII Winter Olympiad: a graceful falling squiggle of white ice called the Kombinierte Kunsteisbahn f√ºr Bob und Rodel—the combined bobsled and luge run. It streams 1,220 meters down the mountainside in a series of swerves, curls, hooks and hairpins, its center a lovely 360-degree loop known as the Kreisel, which means "child's top." It is a beautifully engineered run that cost about $5¼ million with its refrigerated track and retractable awnings to protect it from the sun. Though lugers and bobbers reach speeds of 90 mph on the run, its design is so safe (so they say) that when the Games are over, any mad tourist with $3 for a ticket will be allowed to take the whole hair-raising ride.
February 2, 1976
The ancient art of sledding will occupy a special place in the 1976 Winter Games, if for no other reason than the bob-luge run, which is the one truly dazzling addition to Innsbruck's 1964 Olympic venues. These were to be the Games of Denver—remember?—but because the voters of Colorado, in their wisdom, refused to endorse the organizing committee's half-baked plans, everything was returned to Innsbruck. Thus, the XII Olympiad will be accompanied by massive waves of déj√† vu. When the opening ceremonies begin next Wednesday afternoon in the Bergisel Stadium below the 90-meter ski jump, the setting will be nearly identical to that of 1964, except for a new concrete tower on the jump and a new urn for the Olympic flame. The Alpine ski runs are again located at Patscherkofel and Lizum, and the Nordic races are once more near the pretty hamlet of Seefeld. An early winter attack of Tyrolean "warm storms" left the Alps around Innsbruck almost totally barren of snow, precisely as they were in 1964. And this forced Olympic officials to launch a trucking operation to haul uncountable tons of snow down from the Brenner Pass, precisely as they did in 1964. Even Innsbruck's Olympic fanfare will be the same 16th century melody that was used before. But a major difference between 1964 and 1976 is the awareness of danger that has preoccupied Olympic planners of late; the atrocities of Munich occurred only 130 miles from Innsbruck. Just six weeks ago, terrorists killed three men and took some 80 hostages in Vienna during an oil ministers' conference. Officials in Innsbruck have checked and rechecked their security precautions and issued reassurances. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of Vienna the Shah of Iran, who had rented an entire luxury hotel in Igls for his entourage, canceled his plans to attend the Games.
Almost no one else did, however, and 1,500 competitors are expected in Innsbruck. They will be accompanied by 550 assorted traveling statesmen, bureaucrats, managers, officials, functionaries and other blue-blazered administrative flotsam who will comprise perhaps the largest ratio of useless luminaries to competing athletes in the history of the Olympics.
Drifting among these throngs will be a doughty but anonymous collection of Americans, three women and six men in number, brave but downtrodden, dedicated and determined, yet able to entertain no real hope for recognition, no expectation at all for reward. This will be the U.S. Olympic luge team, led by its Polish coach, Piotr Rogowski, 27, and by its Olympic Luge Committee chairman, Fred Hushla, 61, a gentle, rumpled man who is an industrial designer for the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, N.Y. Nowhere in all of Innsbruck's Olympic population will one find a team with a more forlorn history of neglect, disinterest, nonsupport, disenchantment, empty pockets and rotten facilities.
The cream of 1976 American lugers had assembled for the first time early in January in a sub-zero dawn on the side of Mount Van Hoevenberg, just beyond the limits of Lake Placid, that slightly seedy village that hopes to transform itself into a gleaming Winter Olympic capital by 1980. The lugers huddled like pariahs united in adversity at the bobsled-luge run, the only such run in all the U.S. It is not perfect. It is 45 years old and its walls are wooden, bristling here and there with slivers. The run was originally built for bobsledders, who have come to regard lugers as natural enemies; there is a certain aura of hostility in the air whenever lugers bring their sleek little sleds into territory occupied by the thundering big bobs. The Lake Placid run was officially closed to luges until 1973, on the absurd argument that the runners of a luge (which weighs 44 pounds) slashed the track worse than those of the bobs (350- and 700-pound behemoths with many of the characteristics of runaway freight trains). Understandably, lugers also have developed feelings of paranoia whenever bobbers bob up. One luger at Lake Placid summed up the feud by saying, "Bobbers are slobs. I think they hassle us because they're jealous. We are a better class of people in general. I think it probably has something to do with the fact that bobbers are nothing but big fat people who are there just to add weight to the sled. We are true athletes, we're not just blocks of bulk, and they hate us for it."
Whatever the truth of all this, the first thing the lugers had to do before they could begin their Olympic Trials was to shovel snow off the Mount Van Hoevenberg track. Hushla said this was the result of an "austerity program" at the run. Angrier people swore it was because workers at the run were mostly bobsledders and had arranged some kind of featherbedding scheme so the true-athlete lugers had to demean themselves by shoveling snow.
There were about 40 candidates on hand for the Trials, a fact that first made Fred Hushla happy ("This is tremendous! Usually I only have 10!"). Later, he had second thoughts about the number of entries—many of them frighteningly inexperienced—and he made a fatherly little speech in which he said, "Please, we have to do some seeding here, there are so many of you. If you are afraid to go from the top, I would really appreciate it if you would withdraw."
A day or so after the Trials began, Hushla received a long-distance call from a man in Kansas who complained that he had not known the Olympic luge team was being selected. Hushla asked the man if he had ever been on a luge, and the Kansan replied that, no, he hadn't, but as a child he had frequently sledded "on very, very treacherous hills." Hushla's voice rose in anguish as he pleaded with the man in Kansas, "Good God, don't come here, please don't. Believe me, this is no place for you to be. Please stay home!"
A luge is indeed no place for a mere veteran of the Flexible Flyer. The sled, also called a Rodel in Europe, is a precisely machined vehicle, delicate as a watch to tune, according to experts. It is designed to be a dangerously efficient projectile as it speeds down the track. The typical luge is 50 inches long. Its runners are made of laminated ash with steel strips bolted on (the strip metals can be changed depending on ice conditions). It has a small canvas or braided-strip seat on which the rider reclines—on his back. His feet are curled around the front runners. He steers with ankle pressure and with steady pulls on a rein he holds in one hand. His helmeted head lies back over the ice, behind the little sled. Speeds of 100 mph are not uncommon. The two-man luge is not much longer, usually five inches or so. One racer simply plops down atop his partner and the top man steers. Quite a number of lugers have died over the years. Nearly all of them suffer at least one broken bone at some point early in their careers.
The lugers who came to Lake Placid were a motley mix; no general characteristic or cultural stamp would encompass them all. There were adventurous teen-agers who had made no more than half a dozen runs in their lives; housewives; a commercial artist who specialized in stained-glass panels; a professor of psychology from Southern Illinois University, along with his strapping son, 18, and his pretty daughter, 15, who ultimately retired with some broken toes. There was a home-improvements entrepreneur from Boston who drove a magnificent silver Bentley, vintage 1952, and wore a handsome sweater that marked him as a member in good standing at the exclusive Cresta Run in St. Moritz. There was Dave LeBoutillier, 35, a rollicking TWA pilot, and Carla Leake, 23, a frail brown-eyed TWA stewardess who said that if she made the Olympic team she would have to call in sick. There was Jim Moriarty, 34, an ascetic competitor who had quit his job as an electronics technician in St. Paul 18 months ago to pursue the elusive joys of the luge and was living on $3 a day in Lake Placid. There was Helen Thayer, 39, wife of an "agricultural helicopter pilot" from Seattle. She was a world-class discus thrower who had competed for New Zealand, Guatemala and the U.S. and was now as broad as a Pittsburgh Steeler because she had deliberately gained 30 pounds to give herself extra bulk on the runs.
There was Kathleen Homstad, 24, a red-haired housewife from Goleta, Calif., who began luging when she was 15 and who boasts the best finish ever registered by any American in international competition—an eighth at the 1970 world championships at K√∂nigsee, Germany. There was red-haired Jim Murray, 29, from Montana, a veteran of Vietnam, an ex-ski instructor and ex-school teacher. There was Terry O'Brien, 32, a tough broad-shouldered Air Force technical sergeant, also a veteran American luger, having competed along with Homstad and Murray in two previous Olympics. For most of the past decade Sgt. O'Brien had tried to arrange Air Force assignments which would put him near a luge run. This was a lot easier said than done. He finagled a job in Plattsburgh, N.Y., but while he was stationed there the Lake Placid run was forbidden to lugers, so when Denver was awarded the '76 Games, O'Brien transferred to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs—only to have the proposed luge run near Denver shot down by the voters. He is now stationed in Portsmouth, N.H., only 250 miles from Lake Placid, and he is happy because he is almost religious about the luge. "It is something that is measurable in terms of true perfection," he says. "There is nothing else in my life that is measurable in such a way. Luging is more to me than anything else in the world." (Of those mentioned above, only O'Brien, Murray, Moriarty and Homstad were to make the team.)
American lugers long ago grew accustomed to the second-class conditions that surround their sport. As they prepared for the first runs at Lake Placid, Hushla reached into a barrel and pulled out numbered racing bibs. Most of them read WORLD BIATHLON CHAMPIONSHIP, and the numbers ran totally at random. "Someone has stolen a lot of these," said Hushla.
The run itself was bumpy, even after the snow was shoveled off. The electric-eye timer was broken. Only the lower half of the course was open and it had just started operations, almost a month later than originally planned. On the fifth day of training and Trials the ice was very fast, and a series of spills sent several contestants to the hospital in Lake Placid. But there was only one ambulance at Mount Van Hoevenberg, so each time it made a run to the hospital there was a delay of up to an hour since regulations forbade lugers to run unless an ambulance was standing by. The accumulated snafus and inconveniences probably would have broken the spirit of a more pampered group of athletes, but lugers are so accustomed to humiliation, discomfort, poverty and misfortune that it is possible they would not know how to function in finer circumstances. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine any group of athletes that has been more deprived.
Lugers have no national luge association of their own, so they are represented internationally by the AAU. This amounts to very little representation at all, and lugers swear that the AAU's budget for their sport in all of 1975 came to $37. For the past two years Hushla has had to dig into his own pocket for money to buy the medals awarded to national and North American champions. His total budget from the U.S. Olympic Committee for the entire pre-Olympic training and Trials in the U.S. was $5,700—which allowed him to pay Coach Rogowski the princely wage of $3 a day. Last year, during an international competition at Innsbruck, American lugers found themselves literally begging for money. Jim Moriarty had finished a run and lodged a protest citing excessive snow on the course. Under international rules, a money bond must be posted with each protest—in this case 500 Austrian schillings ($30)—to ensure against a rash of nuisance protests. There was no one at the run to post a bond for the Americans. Officials refused all personal checks and all currency except schillings. The team dug into its own pockets and came up short. At last the Americans were forced to wander among the spectators, panhandling, to raise the money to back Moriarty's protest—which was ultimately upheld.
U.S. lugers traditionally have been almost as short of technical expertise as of money. The only training manual available was written and illustrated by Hushla, who has never been down an entire luge run in his life. "I don't have to actually make a start in a race to know what a start in a race feels like," he says. Last winter in Hammarstrand, Sweden three U.S. lugers tried to turn spy in a desperate attempt to add to their technical backgrounds. They befriended a Polish trainer with a weakness for booze, plied him with vodka and Scotch one night until they convinced him he should examine their sleds and tell them what might be wrong with them. The Pole agreed and brought with him several special instruments for properly tuning luges. While he turned his back to drink and joke with one crafty American, another luger-spook made rapid sketches so they could reproduce the tools at home. Alas, they have not yet done this because they found it would cost about $500 to duplicate the instruments.
For the past several years the official U.S. luge manager—duly selected by the AAU—was a former marine major whose specialty in winter sport was speed skating. Enraged by the man's combination of arrogance and ignorance, the lugers arose against him and managed to prevent the Olympic Committee from appointing him luge coach for the 1976 Games. It was a landmark revolt, led by Frank Hill, the lugers' athlete representative on the Olympic Committee, and by Olympic diver Micki King. This was the first time in history that U.S. athletes have actually been effective in contributing to the selection of an Olympic coach.
Because of this tiny insurrection, a month before the team assembled for its Trials in Lake Placid it had no coach at all. Then along came the pale young man whom American lugers may come to call the Polish Angel. Piotr Rogowski is a resourceful chap who signed his own emigration papers and fled Warsaw in 1974. He flew to New York, where his brother lives, found a job as a file clerk and began a rigid routine of studying English at night school so that he might someday land a job as a physical therapist, his specialty in Poland. This would be an ordinary story of a courageous refugee establishing himself in a new country, except that Rogowski also happened to have been the second-best luger in Poland in 1965. It also happened that he gave up competition because he was selected to spend full time designing the training program and development techniques for the Polish luge team. This was not an assignment to be taken lightly; luging is a major sport in Poland. There are 600 members in the Polish luge association and an elite national team of 15, which practices the sport every day, all year round. Polish lugers work with medical specialists, aerodynamics engineers, metallurgical experts, chemists and an impressive assortment of other scientists and engineers in an attempt to perfect their equipment and themselves. They use wind tunnels, centrifugal force machines and non-winter luges mounted on ball bearings to work out their kinks. And Piotr Rogowski was the expert on luging in Poland. As he said in Lake Placid, "The Polish government pay me, but everybody else on luge team was voluntary. Even now the Polish team is working my plan. What I say to American team, I don't have no problems because what I say I can prove."
It would be pleasing to add that Rogowski came to the U.S. team because of the enlightened efforts of the American sports establishment to recruit him. That is not so. Rogowski wrote letters offering his services to the AAU, the U.S. Olympic Committee, the President's Committee for the Olympic Games, The New York Times and Fred Hushla, among others. He recalls, "I receive no reply from these many letters. This I do not understand. In Europe they always send answer. People should answer and say some word or two, even if they say don't send no more letters. I was surprise. Only Fred Hushla answer me."
Hushla was wise enough to recognize the obvious and act on the inevitable. He hired Rogowski as the $3-per-day head coach of the U.S. team. Naturally enough, the coach's arrival was greeted with cheers by the technology-starved Americans. "Piotr is the greatest single thing that has happened to this sport in this country," says Terry O'Brien.
Polish Angel or not, there will be no miracles this year at Innsbruck. Almost every other luge team there will be far superior to the U.S.—certainly the Russians, Japanese, Scandinavians, Poles and, most significant, the East Germans. In winter sports, the East Germans have concentrated on the luge, and the athletes are treated like a class of aristocrats born with silver spoons in their steel-capped teeth. East Germany spends $1 million a year on its teams and even offers Ph.D. status in luge from a leading university.
Few countries have dominated any sport quite the way the East Germans have dominated the luge: in the 1972 Olympics at Sapporo they won the gold, silver and bronze medals in the singles events for men and women, and gold and bronze in the men's doubles; in the 1975 international competitions on the Innsbruck course the men swept the top six places in singles, the women the top three.
No team will be so well prepared as the East Germans, but most lugers who compete at Innsbruck will have made hundreds of runs—perhaps as many as 5,000—on their sleds this season. The intrepid Americans will be lucky if they hit 100 before the first Olympic event. Rogowski could scarcely believe the ineptitude and inexperience that he witnessed at Lake Placid. Sadly, he trudged down the center of the course, dressed in a baggy pair of stars-and-stripes-covered Uncle Sam warmup trousers, a dark brown Polish overcoat and a much-used green stocking cap. He shrugged and smiled wanly as he said, "This track is O.K. for new people, new team, but it is not a good testing place for good luger. I should not be standing here in luge course, I should be at side taking notes. There are many problems here. I do not expect much." He shook his head and moved on down the track, a refugee who was a long, long way from the ideal conditions he had known.
Still, there was a kind of shoot-the-works Americanism growing within him. He will take his little crew to Innsbruck. He will stride proudly in the colorful parade at the opening ceremonies, dressed in a smart new uniform from Montgomery Ward, by golly. There will be Piotr Rogowski, coach and leader of the most dauntless team at the XII Winter Olympiad—the lugers of the United States of America.