The luge is the last pocket of wonderful insanity left in the Olympics. Every Winter Games needs something like it to add a sense of perspective: without the luge, the two weeks of competition might gradually become all vanilla in the memory. But here is an event that comes swaggering right in, looking raffish from the start, and gets by with it.
Listen to the names involved: Dettlef Günther of East Germany, Vera Zozulia of Russia, Ernst Haspinger of Italy, Melitta Sollmann of East Germany and her teammate, Bernhard Glass. They nod solemnly to each other across their sleds, all of them seemingly listening to music that plays only inside their heads, and then proceed to hurl themselves down an iced chute in search of speed that passeth understanding.
The Lake Placid luge run sits seven miles out of town at Mount Van Hoevenberg, which isn't really a mountain but a peacefully wooded slope thickly covered with stands of golden birch whose branches are lacy in the cold winter light. The luge run starts at a 2,400-foot elevation and snakes downward for 3,326 feet through 14 turns and a total drop of 313.4 feet, growing gradually faster and more frightening along the way. At full blast, the sledders hit around 65 mph, sometimes attached to their vehicles, sometimes not.
Lugers go racing in suits of plastic-coated stretch nylon; the outfits cling so tightly that competitors look as if they have been held by the tip of the nose and hand-dipped in high-gloss paint. It transforms them into something inhuman, sinister creatures from God knows where. Oh, how they shine, and rocketing down the course, they seem to paint long, glistening streaks in the air as they flash by. And all of this is done while supine on 22-kilo (48.4 pounds) sleds that are little more than two runners and a rudimentary saddle.
None of the lugers was more otherworldly last week than Günther, 25, whose presence seemed even more mysterious because he had been listed as injured. He came gimping in on a rickety left ankle. It was whispered that he had tangled with an auto and that the auto had finished second. No way that this fierce 1976 Olympic and 1979 world champion could continue to ravage the sport. Yet there he was in an iridescent blue suit, thick-faced and wearing a mean stubble of beard. Where Günther walked, crowds parted respectfully.
International luging rules require that one of the four runs be made at night, which only proves beyond all doubt that happy madmen control the sport. In the thick blackness of last Wednesday evening, some 5,000 spectators lined the illuminated curves and gulleys, not quite certain of what to expect. In spots where the track wasn't patrolled—and there were many—a fan could lean right into the run and look a luger in the eye.
In a setting like this, it seemed clear that this wasn't a sport at all, but a weird rite. Maybe these people weren't racing; they were being sacrificed. Those lugers who rifled past, frozen on the retina for a split second, would never be seen again. The knots of people would watch the racers and murmur softly among themselves, and then all heads would swing around to look up the course for the next one. Send us another victim.
On Wednesday night the mighty Günther flashed through the run in 43.199 seconds, breaking his own course record by 2.805. When the first heat was over, Italy's Haspinger was in second spot, with Glass in third. Zozulia also produced a record (38.978) run down the shorter women's course.
On Thursday afternoon, only the lighting had changed. If anything, the two-centimeter coating of ice seemed to glow more evilly by daylight. And again it was Günther, this time with a 43.555, leading the field. He was closely chased by Glass (43.780), and Haspinger (43.833). The nearest American was Jeff Tucker, 24, of Westport, Conn., in 13th place.
Racing confidently on Friday, with a .514-second lead on the field, Günther suddenly crashed near the end of the run, spinning wildly and spilling off his sled. He scrambled back aboard to finish—but with a 46.879. When the heat was over, he had ignobly been kicked down to ninth spot. So long, gold medal. Günther limped away, unsmiling.
It was now Haspinger's show. At the start of Saturday's fourth and final heat, he was carrying a 2:10.860 total and looking great. In fact, Haspinger was looking great most of the way down. But he, too, took a spill on the Omega turn, and thus he finished 21st overall.
Which brings us back to Glass. He held on tightly to smoke everybody off with a last run of 43.482 for a winning total of 2:54.796. In the women's division, it was Zozulia all the way.
"Luging is like riding on a bar of soap," said John Fee, of Alaska, the only holdover member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic luge team. "Everything happens so fast. I like to compare it with a tape recorder stuck on fast-forward. You're zipping by the trees and crowds. Sometimes I try to imagine what the people are seeing when I go by them."
Don't ask, John, don't ask. Those suits are scary, John. You know, all shiny like that and...uh, John. John, is that you?
Italy's Ernst Haspinger was staring at a gold medal until he lost his luge in his fourth and final run.