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Going Feet First

Markus Prock is a world champ, but an Olympic underdog

There is one reigning world champion on Austria's Winter Olympics team who could walk through any coffeehouse in Vienna and no one would even look up from his afternoon tea. His name is Markus Prock, his sport is luge, and he's about as famous in Austria as, say, a world archery champion would be in the United States.

"Well, I just accept that," says Prock. "But no matter the sport, everybody knows an Olympic champion, right?"

Right. And the idea of a gold medal in luge going to an Austrian doesn't sound nearly as farfetched as it did a year ago. That was when Prock, a 23-year-old platoon commander in the Austrian army, piloted a borrowed sled to victory in the '87 worlds. Going into the competition on his home course at Igls, near Innsbruck, Prock was considered a comer, but not a threat to unseat the East Germans, who have dominated singles luge for the past 20 years.

"If everything went well," says Prock, speaking through an interpreter, "the feeling was that I could finish in the top six. No one thought I had the nerves to finish higher." But he did, edging Jens Mueller of East Germany and Sergei Danilin of the Soviet Union.

Prock's angular six-foot, 160-pound body is dotted with muscle. He looks like an athlete and moves like an athlete. He resembles a small-college option quarterback or a quarter-miler—in fact, he ran a respectable 50.96 400 meters last year to finish second in the Tyrolean Open Championships.

Prock feels that his conditioning—he lifts weights three or four times a week and mixes interval training with long-distance running—has been one of the major factors in his success. "Traditionally the East Germans are the best-conditioned lugers in the world," he says, "and I feel that I'm on a par with them."

But is athleticism really necessary for the luger, who resembles a human projectile-more than anything else? The luger spends almost the entire race flat on his back, guiding his sled through the sharply inclined, multicurved (13 on the Calgary track) 1,250-meter course with subtle movements of the body and feet. He (or she) may reach speeds of 55 miles per hour, relying on instinct, knowledge of the course and pure guts to get to the finish first. Each time a luger lifts his head to check his path he loses precious time; Prock, for example, may look up only two or three times during a run that takes about 50 seconds. A sport for the deranged, perhaps, but surely not the athletic.

Not true, says Prock, who points out that athleticism is a major factor in the pretimed part of the race, when the luger pushes his sled down a steep incline toward the starting line. The greater the head of steam in this prestart, the faster the run. "If you get a bad start by maybe three or four hundredths of a second, you can make it up," he says. "But if you're one tenth of a second behind, forget it."

A racer needs at least three other things, too: nerve in great quantity, luge technique and the mechanical ability to make on-the-spot modifications to his sled. Prock is weakest in this last area. "I'm trying," he says. "But I am not very good with the tools." For example, at last year's worlds, Prock couldn't get what he wanted out of his own luge so he borrowed one from teammate Georg Fluckinger. The first words out of Markus's mouth after he won the world title were a thank you to Fluckinger, who has since been named the team's technical coach.

Like many Austrian schoolchildren, Prock grew up on a sled, sliding, in winter, down the hills between home and school. But becoming a luge racer is not the next logical step for an Austrian boy or girl. Skiing is the national passion of Austria. Anywhere in the country you can strike up a conversation about the fortunes of the ski team, which happen to be declining at the moment, but ask an Austrian about Markus Prock and the reply is a blank look. An exception can be found in Mieders, the lovely village in the Stubai Valley where Prock lives with his parents: Peter, who owns a gas station, and Brigitte, who manages the family's eight-room tourist house (Pension Prock), which caters to skiers in the winter and Alpine climbers in the summer. In Mieders, a banner on the local post office proclaims MARKUS PROCK, RODEL-WELTMEISTER '87 (luge world champion '87).

The village is just a few miles from Igls, the site of the sledding competition in the '64 and '76 Innsbruck Olympics. Prock first tried the ice canal at Igls when he took part in der Tag der offenen Tür (the day of open doors), a competition for teenagers. A luge aficionado named Peter Knauseder was there, too, and he decided on that day to organize any interested young lugers into an informal club. That club became the basis of today's national team, and Knauseder, 36, is now the Austrian chief of luge, or sportwart.

"It is quite easy for youngsters to get skiing instruction," says Knauseder, "but there is no one to show them anything about luge."

Young Prock and about 10 others signed up, and Knauseder, according to Markus, supplied them with "racing suits that were two sizes too large and luges that were catastrophes." In the summer months when there was no ice on the run, Knauseder affixed wheels to the sleds and sent his students rolling down a steeply inclined street. "Once in a while I'd have to stop traffic," says the coach. "Two things I remember about Markus: He never had any fear, and he was always the most ambitious."

Prock's status in the Austrian army (he was promoted from corporal to platoon commander after his victory in the worlds) has furthered that ambition, for he is a soldier in name only. He is attached to the Heeres Sport und Nahkampf Schule, a special unit of about 120 men, many of whom are Austria's best athletes. ("No skiers, though," says Prock. "They have enough advantages already.") Although his unit is based in Innsbruck, Prock lives in Mieders and spends most of his days in training. He's essentially an athlete being subsidized by the army.

"It's the only hope for athletes like me," says Prock. "If you must look at your watch [punch a clock], you cannot do it." Adds Knauseder, "The army is at the basis of Markus's success."

Still, the lugers consider themselves stepchildren in the Austrian sports hierarchy. Like so many minor sports everywhere, luge in Austria is underbudgeted, undermanned and just plain underappreciated. The Austrians also claim their sleds are vastly inferior to those of the East Germans, the unchallenged technomasters of luge. Prock uses an analogy from skiing (naturally) to explain: "Our situation with luges is like if Franz Klammer bought his skis in a regular sporting goods shop."

Actually, one of the world's best-known luge craftsmen is Austrian Hans Gasser, 48, a third-generation sled builder, who lives in Matrei, a village near Mieders. He sells sleds or sled parts to Poland, Norway and even the Soviet Union. The American luge team was so pleased with Gasser's work that it sent him a T-shirt imprinted with THE U.S. TEAM LOVES HANS GASSER. But the East Germans have never called him.

Gasser admits that the East German craftsmen are excellent, but only to a point. "I don't really think there's anything special about their luges," he said one day in September as he leaned on a shovel in the garden of his home. "I know our boys sometimes claim they would do better on East German luges." Then he smiles. "But tell me this—when you see the East Germans dominating swimming, do you say that they have better swimming trunks?"

A victory by Prock at Calgary would be an upset. Only one Austrian luger, Manfred Schmid in 1968, has ever won Olympic gold in singles. Prock's victory in the worlds alerted the East Germans that he had become a dangerous competitor, and, as Knauseder puts it, "Die Ostdeutschen werfen alles in die Schlacht" ("The East Germans will bring everything to battle").

Prock is ready. For years he has kept his own Geheimliste, a secret list of goals, all of which he has met. The last on the list was a gold at the 1987 worlds.

And the goal for 1988? "It was so obvious," says Prock, "that I didn't even write it down."