To slide is human. Animals panic when they hit the skids, but put a patch of ice in front of a kid or a cop and he'll probably take a run at it. Nowhere is this urge more gloriously celebrated than in a curious part of northeastern Italy called the S√ºdtirol. Children there slide before they walk, on wooden sleds or the seats of their snow pants. Paul Hildgartner was once such a child. Then he grew up and got on a luge, and now he's the S√ºdtirol's most famous slider. "Paul has the best start in the world," says Bonny Warner, a member of the U.S Olympic luge team who spent a month training with Hildgartner last summer. "He steers the best. He knows more about it than anyone. He's the guru of the sport."
Hildgartner, 31, seems an unlikely guru. At 5'8" and 170 pounds, he looks more like a Yoda than a yogi. Warner is right, though. Hildgartner has it upstairs. "My size is not good for me," he says in his hesitant English. "What is the word? Disadvantage. But luge gets easier as older. Experience."
Luge has been getting easier for a long time. Sarajevo will be Hildgartner's fourth Olympics. He won a gold medal in the two-man event at Sapporo in 1972 with Walter Plaikner. He was out of the money at Innsbruck in '76, and when Plaikner retired after those Games to become the Italian team coach, Hildgartner decided to concentrate on singles. That paid off in '80, when a fast final run lifted him to the silver medal at Lake Placid. He has won a world championship twice (1971 and 1978) and a European championship five times, the fifth just last week in Olang, Italy.
Such prowess has come to be expected by his neighbors in the S√ºdtirol, a semi-autonomous area in the Dolomites, the "pale mountains" of central Europe that bleed north into the Alps. The S√ºdtirol, once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was ceded to Italy after World War I, and today signposts carry Italian translations alongside the native German—a token gesture to the ruling country. Italians to the south take little notice of the area, though once every four years they might note that Italian lugers with Germanic names have once more brought home some Olympic medals.
All of the nation's lugers come from several small S√ºdtirolean villages hard by Austria. Kids from Terenten, Bruneck and Taisten (a.k.a. Terento, Brunico and Tesido) take to the world-class run at Olang (Valdaora) and become demon sliders. Hildgartner was a 14-year-old in Kiens (Chienes) when they built the run in 1966. "I ski a little then, but the track made a big impression for me," he says. "I go half way up. When I finish, I don't know where I am...wild, I think...but after that first run I feel good to do the sport." To make himself better for the sport, Hildgartner began working on technique and conditioning, doing start practice in the summer, running up mountains and lifting "much weights." For all its velocity, luge is the subtlest of sports. A tightened thigh muscle or a flexed tricep is all that's needed to steer a sled cleanly out of a turn and low into the next. Soon Hildgartner was able to hold himself rigid at 75 mph, moving as little as possible, lifting his head only when absolutely necessary. He was fast becoming luge's finest technician.
He was doing all this despite distractions. In the year that the Olang track opened Hildgartner met the fra√ºlein next door, Margaritha Knapp. They were married in 1980. Today they live across the road from Kiens' oldest hostelry, the Gasthof Knapp, which Margaritha's parents run as an inn and informal folk museum. The inn has been operating since the 16th century, and the disarray of items to be found there includes hundred-year-old skis, snowshoes and, yes, sleds.
The Hildgartners' life is considerably more ordered. Margaritha tends bar at the inn when she's not tending Alexander, 4, and Katharina, 2 months. (Mama says nein, she won't let her babies grow up to be lugers.) Paul relaxes by playing the guitar or by working on his sled, which he designed and built himself, even down to shaping the runners. When he can take time from his own training, he teaches the rambunctious Rolfi, a 7-month-old Bavarian mountain bloodhound, the tricks of hunting. As comfortable as Hildgartner is in a rubberized spandex luge suit, he is even more at home in loden cloth and Tyrolean cap, tramping the Dolomites with his dog and gun. "I hunt really to just be in the mountains," he says in his self-effacing way. "I cannot say I am good. It is the hobby with me." Hildgartner is too modest, as the walls of the inn attest. There hang the antlers of a 10-point stag, a huge auerhahn (capercaillie) and other hunting trophies. All his luge awards, including the Olympic silver and gold medals, are packed away.
Hildgartner has a third uniform, though he rarely puts it on. He makes no money from his sport, but he does receive an income as a police officer. U.S. team manager "Bullet" Bob Hughes elucidates: "So I said, 'Hey, you're a policeman.' And Paul said, 'Well, yes.' And I said, 'In your hometown?' And he said, 'Bullet, you see, it's like with the Russians. I don't do anything.' "
"My job," Hildgartner explains, "is the luge." He obviously enjoys his work. At last week's European championships he worked the finish area, greeting friends as he would at the Gasthof, giving a handshake and a cuff on the cheek to each. He was so at ease he even sipped gl√ºhwein between heats, agreeing, "Ja, ja. I'm having good day."
He was indeed. After breaking the course record on his first run, he was only slightly slower in a light snow on his second. That evening he had another good run, and on Sunday he broke his day-old record to easily win the singles title. The field was strong—it included the current world champion, Miroslav Zajonc of Canada, and the winner at the Lake Placid Games, Bernhard Glass of East Germany—but Hildgartner didn't disappoint the neighbors who dropped by to wish him well. At times it seemed more like a village bierfest than a continental championship.
The feeling at Olang was that Hildgartner will win the gold medal in singles at Sarajevo. Hughes isn't so sure. "I think he's peaked," he says. "Thirty-one is old in this sport. Still, the Italians are kind of weird; they go like hell all the time, always on the edge. They've got the fastest sleds around, and they love to drive 'em."
Hildgartner knows that in Sarajevo he'll have no home-course advantage as he did at Olang and that the Soviet daredevil Sergei Danilin will also be a serious challenger. But he's confident. He knows he can slide well on the Trebeviƒá course, having won the pre-Olympic meet there last year. "It is very good and very fast," he says. "It is bumpy, not easy to drive. I like it." Assuredly, nothing will be held back. "I shoot for that race," Hildgartner continues. "For me, I think it is finished after Sarajevo." He says he might coach, and one suspects that he will. After all, it isn't easy for a S√ºdtirolean to stop sliding.