February 06, 2006

Slip Sliding Away: A quick and dirty preview of Olympic luge

The space age looking athletes hurling down the ice in helmets and bodysuits arenít lugers. Ainít no loozhers in luge. Call them by the elegantly simple term befitting their sport: sliders. Fusing an ancient means of transport and a childís joyful need for speed, the luge is a fiberglass platform on steel runners carrying one or two humans careening down a mountain. Deceptively simple, speed comes from rocking and paddling with the hands at the start. Steering is done with small leg and shoulder movements. Luge is the fastest sport on ice, and the first event to come to its conclusion in Torino. It's the only Winter Olympic event timed to the thousandth of a second. G-Forces like a roller coaster. No brakes. Blink and youíll miss it. You wonít want to.

From February 11th to February 15th, athletes will compete on the Cesana Pariol, reaching speeds of up to 90 mph. Like bobsled and skeleton, events take place on a man made track. Each track used in international competition has itís own patterns of twists, drops, and curves, so look for the Italians to have a major home track advantage. Historically, the Germans have dominated the sport thanks to a national tradition of excellence and interest combined with cutting edge sled technology. This year's American team boasts some strong medal contenders.

Three sets of medals will be awarded in the gamesí first daysómenís and womenís singles, and doubles. No rules stipulate that doubles teams cannot be made up of women or mixed pairs, but in fact two man teams comprise the entries, the heavier slider riding on top for aerodynamic purposes. No woman has yet to compete in an Olympic doubles race. Slidersare permitted to weight their suits up to the maximum allowable weight, to take away the advantage for heavier athletes. Requiring access to training facilities and equipment, and relying in large part on athletic balance, luge has room for older athletes and long careers. Georges Hackl of Germany, the most decorated slider of all time, is slated to participate in his 6th Olympic games. Human interest in supplied by Venezuelan Werner Hoeger, fifty-two, sliding in his second Olympics, andthe oldest male athlete in any sport at this year's games. A gymnast in his youth, fitness expert, and professor at Boise State University, Hoeger took up the sport in his forties thanks to a coming together of physical and educational background coupled with happenstance of location.

The American Men have a good chance to medal. Tony Benshoof has earned four silver medals and one bronze this year on his way to a third place ranking in the 05-06 World cup. Watch Italian Armin Zoeggeler, 2002 Menís Gold Medallist and this year's World Cup winner on his home track. German women have dominated the sport, finishing one two three in this year's World Cup. USA also sends a dangerous veteran doubles team in Brian Martin and Mark Grimmette, who won Olympic Bronze in 1998 and Silver in 2002.

You'll see luge coverage from NBC during the first four days of competition, with the men's singles finals airing in primetime on the evening of the twelfth. The womenís competition concludes in primetime on the fourteenth, and the doubles event rounds out coverage the next evening.

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