Born To Luge Georg Hackl is a techno whiz, Markus Prock is a natural athlete. The Olympics have belonged to Hackl, the World Cup circuit to Prock. Now, the final act of one of the greatest, if most obscure, rivalries in sports is about to begin

February 09, 1998

A celebration was readied on the Saturday afternoon last January
when the World Luge Championships concluded on a mountainside
above the tiny Austrian village of Igls. Just two sliders
remained in the men's singles competition, and it seemed certain
to the crowd lining the icy track that Markus Prock, who lives
only 10 miles away in Mieders and had learned to slide at age 12
on this very run, would hold his tiny first-run margin over
Georg Hackl of Germany and secure the world title. Prock's wife,
Christina, stood near the finish, holding their 18-month-old
daughter, Nina; his parents, Brigitte and Peter, waited nearby.
Many in the crowd were friends and neighbors, willing Prock's
victory.

Yet a ripple of dread coursed through the audience when Hackl
began accelerating through ever-faster split times down the
1,220-meter track and shot past the finish line in 49.236
seconds. It was the fastest time of the second run by nearly a
quarter of a second--hours, in luge terms--a statistic made
implausible by the condition of the course (ice turning to
sled-slowing slush) and by Hackl's pedestrian start (3.93
seconds for approximately the first 20 meters, just the eighth
fastest of the second run). Every previous slider on the final
run had struggled to hold his speed, yet Hackl had gotten faster
as he approached the bottom. "Unbelievable," said U.S. doubles
slider Gordy Sheer as Hackl flashed past in the finish area.
"Where did that time come from?"

Moments later Prock screeched through the finish line almost .3
of a second behind Hackl's time for the second run. Silver
medal. He knew it as soon as he gathered his sled and turned to
look at his family, coaches and teammates. "They stood there and
said nothing," Prock recalled months later. "When you win, they
shout, they wave, they hug you. When you lose, everybody is
quiet."

Prock had heard this silence before. At the 1994 Lillehammer
Olympics, Hackl snatched the gold medal from Prock on the last
of four runs by a margin of .01. Two years before that, at the
Albertville Games, Hackl led throughout the final day, leaving
Prock with the silver. Now, on this cold, gray afternoon in the
Tyrolean Alps, Sheer's doubles partner, Chris Thorpe, looked at
Prock and shook his head. "My god," he said. "He must have
nightmares."

Perhaps you've never heard their names: Markus Prock, Georg
Hackl. Perhaps you don't even know that luge is an Olympic sport
in which men and women lie on tiny sleds made of fiberglass and
steel, and hurtle themselves down the side of a mountain in the
trough of a twisting channel of ice at speeds that can surpass
80 mph, steering only with their toes, braking only when they
reach the finish. Fastest to the bottom wins. But even if you
know none of this, you know Hackl and Prock because you have
seen their kind in other games, on other fields. One is blessed
with size, strength, speed and natural athleticism; the other is
smaller, weaker and slower, and out of his arena he might not be
thought an athlete at all. But when the stakes are highest, he
wins.

In eight of the last 11 years Prock, 33, has won the World Cup
overall title by accumulating the most points in a season. These
crowns underscore his consistency and support the widespread
assumption by his peers that there has never been a more gifted
slider. Hackl, 31, won the overall title back in 1989 and '90
but not since. Yet it is Hackl who owns three Olympic medals
(the aforementioned two golds and a silver from Calgary in
1988). And it is Prock who, after falling apart and finishing
11th as a 23-year-old favorite in Calgary, has twice settled for
the silver behind Hackl. If you need a mainstream sports
translation, think of it this way: Prock is Dan Marino, with all
those records. Hackl is Joe Montana, with all those rings. "The
Olympics," says Prock mournfully, "they don't like me so much."

The last act of this drama will be played out in Nagano. Prock
will again be the logical favorite, bringing his consummate
skills to war with his brittle nerves. Hackl will again be his
tormentor, lying as still as death on his sled, blind to
pressure when it's worst.

Hackl and Prock are children of the mountains, born and raised
three hours apart along the ribbon of the Alps that crosses
central Europe and breeds passion for winter sports that are
mere curiosities in the U.S. Hackl's home has always been
Berchtesgaden, Germany, a resort town in southern Bavaria, 90
miles from Munich and nine miles from Salzburg, Austria.
Although it is infamous as the home of Hitler's mountain
retreat, Berchtesgaden is also a wonderland of forest and
pastures, carved by glacial streams and guarded by 10,000-foot
peaks on three sides. The centerpiece of the region is the
crystalline Konigssee, a lake above which curls the final
traverse of the luge run on which Hackl learned to slide.

Prock's home has always been the breathtaking Stubaital, a lush
valley in western Austria near the two-time Olympic city of
Innsbruck, in which a line of small, immaculate villages climbs
into the foothills of the Alps, each closer to the tourist's
vision of The Sound of Music than the one before. It's an hour's
drive to Germany and an hour's drive to Italy, and from the
second-floor deck on the back of Prock's 10-bedroom guest house,
the sky is filled with majestic gray rock promontories. Half an
hour to the east, on a mountain called Patscherkofel, where
Franz Klammer careened to his 1976 Olympic downhill victory
(with nine-year-old Prock standing in the snow near the finish),
is the Igls luge run.

Here Hackl's and Prock's biographies diverge. Prock was an
exceptional athlete from childhood. Like his sister, Angelika,
three years older, he was an accomplished ski racer. He played
soccer--"His first sport, his first love," says Brigitte--and
even after taking up the luge he would continue to run track. In
the Austrian equivalent of high school, Prock ran 22.8 seconds
for 200 meters and 50.9 for 400, times that would win many
conference meets in the U.S. He's now 6'1" and weighs 195
pounds, with the taut, rippling physique of a defensive back. He
took to luge on a whim. "His father opened the newspaper one
Saturday morning and saw that the Igls Sport Club was looking
for development lugers, and he asked Markus if he would be
interested," says Brigitte. "He decided to try it, and he liked
it immediately."

Prock was 12. Within a decade he would be known as the greatest
starter in the history of the sport, able to use his long arms
and powerful back to push out of the chute and along the first
20 meters of the course with more force than any other slider.
In a sport ruled by gravity, the start is critical.

Where Hackl went to grammar school, luge was offered as a
gym-class alternative to soccer, skiing and volleyball, all of
which seemed to require more dexterity than he possessed. "I was
not the best at sports," he recalls, so he chose luge, which
appeared sufficiently different from the others. Even now, as a
two-time Olympic champion, the 5'10", 190-pound Hackl is
decidedly unathletic, soft in most of the places where Prock is
solid. While luging as a boy, he was not immediately impressive.
"He participated with much enthusiasm, but nobody paid much
attention to him," says Josef Lenz, a coach and pioneer in the
sport who worked with Prock as a teenager.

But there was something about the luge that Hackl could wear
down. He loved to tinker with mechanical things and was
attracted to the intricacies of sled-building, a vital part of
success in the sport. (In this way, luge is like auto racing;
you can't win at Daytona without a good chassis.) Hackl served
an apprenticeship as a metalworker, with an eye toward building
better equipment. Even now he spends hours each day in a
workshop in the basement of the national training center in
Berchtesgaden. "Georg always has the best equipment," says
German teammate Susi Erdmann, a two-time Olympic medalist who
has known Hackl for 14 years.

When they reached the Olympics, in 1988, Prock was 23 and Hackl
21, and they were already among the best in the world. They were
also the yin and yang of luge racers. Prock puts sliders in
three categories: athletes, sled builders and drivers. Prock's
athleticism is legend, as is Hackl's skill in the workshop. Both
are outstanding drivers. But in Calgary they diverged again.
Unnerved by warm weather and the resultant choppy ice, Prock
slid poorly. Hackl adjusted his sled on the fly and held
together for the silver behind Jens Muller of East Germany.
(Hackl was a West German in those days.) Four years later in
Albertville, Prock finished the first day's two runs in second
place, just .011 behind Hackl. Then weather struck again. "We
went to bed that night thinking, Perfect ice again, please,"
recalled Prock. "But I woke up in the morning and it was
snowing, big flakes. I knew Georg would be faster than me." So
Hackl was, expertly tweaking his equipment to meet the changing
conditions and winning his first gold medal by .3 of a second.

Prock came to Lillehammer again as the favorite. This time the
weather was perfect, the ice fast, and Prock led by .058 after
three runs. Hackl's final run was superb, the second fastest of
the day, placing enormous pressure on Prock, the last slider of
the competition. Prock wobbled in Turn 10, losing precious ticks
that consigned him to another silver. In terms of distance,
Hackl had beaten him by the equivalent of 10 inches over more
than three miles. Silence again. No hugs. No celebration.

"At the finish he was in such a state, like I have never seen
him before," says Prock's teammate and close friend Markus
Schmidt. "He was so loaded with anger that Hackl was in front of
him again. After we got back to our room, he said, 'Again Hackl,
he is always lucky.'"

Three years later, Prock rummages through his memory for an
explanation. "Two weeks after the Olympics I had my tonsils
out," he says. "I was very sick." He pauses and adds sheepishly,
"It sounds like I have excuses every time." He then dismisses
the 1994 defeat as fate alone. "One one-hundredth of a second,
it is such a small margin that it can be only luck." No, it can
be more than that. It can be nerves. Hackl has the best in his
sport.

Pressure sliding is a contrary act. The driver is full of need,
trying to will his sled down the run in the fastest time
possible. Yet to best achieve this, he must be sublimely
relaxed. A tense driver tightens up on the sled, causing
unnecessary movement that can cost thousandths of a second by
increasing wind resistance. In this way Hackl is almost a freak.
"His mental strength is phenomenal," says German coach Thomas
Schwab, a bronze medalist in doubles in the Calgary Games. "It
really borders on virtuosity. Before he gets on the sled at the
top of the run, he has gone through every situation that could
possibly happen. As he slides, it seems to him that it has
already happened before. He has this mystical air about him."

One cool evening last summer, Hackl sat near the window in his
brother Michael's restaurant on a hillside overlooking
Berchtesgaden. His girlfriend of seven years, Margit Datzmann,
sat to his left as Hackl, fueled by two flagons of beer,
explained the mental side of his sport. "During that one minute
you slide down," he said, "your head must be clear of other
thoughts." Here Datzmann placed her hands next to her temples,
in the universal sign for tunnel vision. "This is typically
Georg," she said. "For days, for weeks.... "

Away from luge Hackl is impish and adventuresome. During the
summer of 1994 he and Datzmann took a three-week trip through
the western U.S. in a rented RV, at times befriending fellow
campers in the wilderness and teasing them with his celebrity,
which he knows is minimal. He speaks only German in formal
interviews, but after a few beers, his English flows
comfortably. His sponsorship deal with Viessmann, a German
heating company, supports him, and not long after Nagano, he'll
probably become a coach. His spare relationship with Prock was
fractured last winter when they took opposing sides in a
controversy over whether Hackl's teammate Muller should be given
World Cup points for a race in Latvia in which he crashed into a
ladder inadvertently placed across the track. On the subject of
his rival's nerves, Hackl is remorseless. "If Prock uses his
potential completely, nobody can beat him," says Hackl. "But
what is in his head, I cannot say."

What's in Prock's head is a Rolodex of demands and ready
rationalizations, a running commentary between his backbone and
his brain that Schmidt boils down to this: "Sometimes Prock is
more nervous."

Prock argues that he's only normal. "You need to be nervous, a
little bit," says Prock. "If I feel it too much, I tell myself,
You don't have to prove anything to anybody. You've won too much
already. It's a feeling almost like, Up yours, to everybody."

He is sitting in the backyard of his guest house. His parents
live on the ground floor, while he, Christina--a junior high
school teacher and former ski racer--and Nina, now 2 1/2, reside
upstairs with that stunning mountain view. It is a storybook
life in a storybook setting. Prock's sponsorship deal with Red
Bull, a sports drink, supports him comfortably, and like Hackl,
he also draws a salary from the military. But he knows that
something is missing from the portrait. "The only thing I
haven't won," Prock says. "An Olympic gold medal."

The start of the Nagano luge run is very steep; it tends to send
sliders flying from the top, which dents Prock's customary edge.
Wendel Suckow of the U.S. won the pre-Olympic test run in Nagano
last winter, and as Hackl has said, "Suckow is an even worse
starter than I am." It will not be easy for Prock to alter the
course of this rivalry.

He squints into the sun coming off the mountain, and his brown
eyes capture all its bright light. Suddenly he shrugs and then
smiles broadly. "Sometimes the ones who win all the other
races," Prock says, "are not the ones who win the biggest
races." This is a reality he can accept. Or it is this year's
excuse, already in place. His epitaph.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER ON YOUR MARKS.... While Germany's Hackl (left) is only a so-so starter, Austria's Prock is the best in the business. [Georg Hackl in start position on luge track] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER [See caption above--Markus Prock in start position on luge track]
COLOR PHOTO: ROLF KOSECKI ON THE FAST TRACK Before he leaped into luging, the 6'1", 195-pound Prock was an outstanding skier, soccer player and runner. [Markus Prock sliding] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER GET A GRIP During the start of the race, the spiked gloves of Hackl (left) and Prock allow them to dig into the ice and propel their sleds. [Georg Hackl and Markus Prock displaying spiked gloves]

"I tell myself, You don't have anything to prove," Prock says.
"It's a feeling almost like, Up yours, to everybody."

Before Hackl gets on a sled, "he has gone through every
situation that could possibly happen," says one coach.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)