To Americans, luge is among the most arcane of sports. The word is pronounced loozzsh and sounds as if it might have to do with some kind of exotic shower nozzle. Even when you learn that the word is French for sled, no clear picture of luging emerges, which perhaps is why for a long time it has seemed best to leave the whole thing to dour cadres of Iron Curtain athletes wearing vaguely sinister rubber suits.
Then, last week, luge was thrust into the U.S. sporting consciousness. A stunning new luge run was unveiled for its first official test—1,000 meters long, curling, curving and coiling, as graceful as it was treacherous, down through the trees on old Mount Van Hoevenberg outside Lake Placid, N.Y. It was, of course, the new facility built for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, a $4.5 million structure of sculptured concrete, steel and wood, refrigerated, and so artfully designed by a Polish-French architect, Jan Steler, that the best luge riders in the world thought this might be the best luge course in the world.
True or not, it's positively the best in the Western Hemisphere, for the simple reason that it is the only one. And that is why luging is not very big outside of Europe. Until now, almost no one in America—North or South—ever had much of a chance to try luging, let alone perfect its technique or its technology. Until the new run opened last month, the only place to practice for international competition in the Western Hemisphere was on the slivery old wooden-walled bobsled run on Mount Van Hoevenberg, which was retired when the separate new luge and bobsled courses were built. As often as not, lugers seeking access to the old course were impeded or insulted by the more numerous bobsledders. There was no bobsledding in the 1960 Winter Olympics because Squaw Valley didn't have a run; there was no luge because it didn't become an Olympic sport until 1964.
The crème de la crème of lugers, both men and women, were in Lake Placid for a pre-Olympic meet, including a huge confident contingent of East Germans, who have long dominated this exacting modern version of sliding down hills as surely as the Flexible Flyer leads all comers in America's simpler version of the game. In the four Olympic Games since the single and double luges were first included as official events, East German riders have won no fewer than 20 of the total of 36 Olympic medals awarded. A degree in the luge is offered at their sports universities, and the technological marvels of their sleds have long been the wonder and worry of their rivals.
"Luging is 50% sled and 50% sledder," says Walter Jentzsch, East Germany's national coach, "although both are really the same and cannot be separated." As with a bad race-car driver, a bad luge rider will reduce a fine machine to mediocrity. Yet there has long been a suspicion in the international luge fraternity that it is the design and construction of the East German sleds that give them a decisive edge. The U.S.S.R. has made a stunning turnabout from a fourth-rate luge power in 1972 to a first-rate one now. And the rumor is that the Soviets stole an East German luge some years ago and gained access to its technological secrets when they disassembled and analyzed the sled.
When asked about this, Jentzsch raised his eyebrows quizzically and said, "You say the Russians stole a sled? We had better count them." Count them, indeed: no East German sled is ever left uncounted—or unguarded. While other lugers at Lake Placid stuck their scarred vehicles in snowbanks or leaned them on hay bales after a race, the East Germans carefully lined up their sleek machines and assigned a special sentry to watch them every moment they weren't in use. "You probably couldn't steal one of those without a commando attack," said Jim Murray, the U.S. team manager. "But I have a theory that there might be more psychology than technology in that whole ploy of keeping their sleds so secret. It just might be that they have no super technology at all, that they're using plain old factory-made sleds while the rest of us are scared half to death because we assume they have that big extra scientific edge."
Possibly yes, but probably no. Still, the Soviets didn't need to steal a German sled to improve in luge. They simply launched an expensive national program in the early '70s, built six luge courses in places where winter seldom leaves the countryside, and spent all kinds of money recruiting and developing superlugers. The Soviets are determined to bring home luge gold from the 1980 Games. In a heavily restricted area of Siberia, they have built an exact replica of the entire Lake Placid course so their riders will know its every veer and jiggle next year. "They know it takes money to make money," sighed Murray, "which is an idea I thought Americans had invented."
The neglect with which U.S. sports officialdom has treated lugers borders on the sadistic. Last week, while the East Germans lolled about the Lake Placid Club, many American lugers had to cadge beds in private homes or throw sleeping bags on the floors of hotel rooms occupied by other countries' teams. For a time, the Americans were allowed the use of a single pickup truck provided by the Lake Placid Organizing Committee to transport themselves and their sleds the six miles from Lake Placid to the course. But a few days before the races, the committee took back the truck, and U.S. lugers were told to hitch rides with other teams. Some were reduced to thumbing it on the highway, their 50-pound sleds on their backs. The only transportation from town to course that the team coach, a doughty Polish refugee named Piotr Rogowski, could muster was aboard the ambulance that is required to be present during all luge runs. At the course, while other teams rode back up the mountain in rented vehicles after each training run, some Americans had to climb the whole way, their backs bowed beneath the burden of their sleds.
Rogowski, who was the second-best luger in Poland in 1965, has in his own person much of the expertise long lacking in U.S. luge development, yet he was working without pay at Lake Placid last week. He has published at his own expense a lucid and definitive book on luge technique and training, but although the U.S. Olympic Committee voted to buy 1,000 copies for $4,800 as a means of defraying the cost, Rogowski never got a check, so the USOC never got the books. Rogowski said sadly last week, "There is only a few minutes until the Olympics. We got no money. We got no cooperation. We got no hope." He waved a hand at the new luge run. "All we got is this, a perfect track with perfect configuration. It will do us great good in the future, perhaps. But for now, for 1980, it should be on another planet for how much it helps us."
At times during last week's competition, lugers thought the new facility indeed belonged on another planet. The Europeans were outraged at the preparation of the course. Hans Rinn, 25, a top East German rider, snapped, "The whole run is soft. Maybe their refrigeration works, but the operators don't know how to run it properly." Although, thanks to a long spell of cold weather, the course had been hard and fast for training, the first competitive runs were held in above-freezing temperatures and the surface was coated with the same crunchy frost that covers refrigerator coils in need of defrosting. For sleds it is worse than snow, acting as an abrasive that slows the runners. Water dripping from retaining roofs over curves also built up and froze on the track, making dangerous bumps. There seemed to be no manpower available to sweep or clean the course. Worse, the refrigeration was either broken or so poorly adjusted that the mountain air reeked with ammonia fumes. Jentzsch grumbled, "These people don't do this to be malignant; they just don't know any better. The frost must be scraped off and the track hosed down. It is so simple. They should know." Indeed, they should.
However poor the condition of the course may have been, the results of last week's competitions ran pretty much according to form. Detlef Günther, East Germany's world champion and Olympic gold medalist, overhauled the U.S.S.R.'s Vladimir Shitov on his final run on Sunday to win the men's singles. Another East German finished third. The East German women swept their singles event and a pair of East Germans won the doubles. The U.S. finished 23rd in the men's and 19th in the women's singles, and 13th in the doubles.
Alas, it isn't likely the U.S. will improve on that in the 1980 Games. Yet the very presence of such a superbly designed course, with—eventually—time for training expert riders and developing sleek new sleds, one day will move luge out of the lexicon of baffling words and into the world of sport—American sport, at that.