Luge is a kind of informed relaxation. Gravity does the work, almost all of it. The driver simply lies back on his sled and gives in to free-fall, sliding through an iced chute at speeds of up to 75 mph and held on course through clever uses of centrifugal force.
At low levels of execution, let's face it, guidance is not that important. Not to downgrade the sport, but a reindeer has already negotiated the Olympic luge run in Hunderfossen, just north of Lillehammer. Last winter workers discovered huge tufts of fur from the run's midpoint to the finish line. Apparently the reindeer stumbled onto the run and took the ride of his life. Had you been there, you might have seen this set of antlers sail by at a terrific clip. Yeow! Blitzen!
Olympic-level luging among higher mammals is another matter. Yet driving remains largely a passive enterprise, with the very best lugers resembling lifeless slabs of meat coming your way at a great rate of speed, their bodies relaxed, yielding, quivering with every movement of the sled. There is even a phrase, "gelling out," to describe this condition.
So it follows that lugers are of a certain personality type: obviously fearless and attracted by speed but...passive. It's a brazen generalization, of course. But consider Duncan Kennedy, 25, of Lake Placid, N.Y., the best luger in the U.S. and among the top three men in the world. By his own admission he is sometimes too passive. Ranked second in the 1991-92 World Cup standings, he climbed onto his sled in Albertville and simply allowed the 1992 Winter Olympics to happen to him. His 10th-place finish—a bitter disappointment, despite the fact that it was the highest ever among U.S. men—was at first explained away as one of those days. But Kennedy, who had finished a similarly disappointing 14th in the 1988 Winter Olympics, wonders now if he wasn't too yielding, too relaxed in the face of important matters.
Perhaps it's revealing that in those years that Kennedy is able to summer in Santa Cruz, Calif., he surfs. Viewed very narrowly, his life appears to have been led without much conviction—riding waves, not making them. You can't say he has ever bailed when things got tough, because that's just not true. As a teen growing up in Lake Placid, he was believed to have an inoperable brain tumor and was given a death sentence. Seeing double, wearing an eye patch, moving awkwardly, he suggested to his mother that he could at least be the bottom man in luge doubles. The bottom man doesn't have to see.
The tumor turned out to be a blood clot that apparently dissolved on its own, and soon Kennedy was able to do what he does best: drive a luge. Yet, as good as he became at sliding, he even did that without conviction. He remembers staring at the Alps in the middle of the 1989-90 World Cup season and suddenly thinking, I would rather be snowboarding. He quit the U.S. team and retired to the snow parks of upstate New York.
When he came back to the sport, though renewed, he still seemed to be only along for the ride. A luge official remembers that Kennedy was admired by teammates for his ability but was never, despite his age and experience, considered to be a leader. Things just happened to him, and he made small rebellions and tiny reactive movements, and that amounted to a life-style as well as a sport.
So—odd, isn't it?—to hear that Duncan Kennedy recently held off 15 neo-Nazi skinheads in an Oberhof, Germany, pub, taking a stand for a black teammate and absorbing a beating because, suddenly, he noticed something very wrong. It amazes even him. He had been going through life aerodynamically, offering no upturned edges, no resistance that you could notice, just letting fast air wash over him. "In my life," he says, "I had never been in a fight, of any kind. I had never even been punched." Now he is so radicalized that he would rather preach the ignorance of racism to the foreign press than discuss sliding. "I've heard from the Fox network," he says. "If that would help...."
It began as a night of terror, so frightening that it was impossible to comprehend until much later. The team was in Oberhof, a resort about 150 miles southwest of Berlin, to train for the upcoming World Cup tour and the Winter Games. On the night of Oct. 29, several members of the U.S. team went to a pub to celebrate a teammate's birthday with a few beers. Among them was Robert Pipkins, who is known among lugers for three things: 1) He is an absolute speed freak, cranking his 600-cc motorcycle up to speeds of 150 mph; 2) he won a world junior title in 1992, when he was 19, just four years after picking up the sport and not even knowing if luge was a winter or summer enterprise; and 3) he is black.
Standing at the bar, Kennedy noticed two skinheads nearby, motioning to the Americans. Kennedy was somewhat alert to the possibility of trouble. Teammate Gordy Sheer, who is Jewish, had earlier noticed a swastika hanging in the bar and had returned to the hotel, where, he says, he later barricaded his door. Kennedy and Pipkins were not overly concerned. "We might think about heading on out," Kennedy told Pipkins, his roommate on the road. But before they could do the cautious and sensible thing, the bar quite suddenly filled with skinheads. Fifteen of them swaggered in, wearing leather boots and jackets with swastikas. "Marched in a line," remembers Kennedy. "Still, I didn't know what to expect."
Several of the skinheads began making monkey sounds and movements behind Pipkins, saying, "Nigger, raus [get out]!" Pipkins was mildly irritated. "I didn't want to leave," he says. "I was upset we had to. I wanted to stand up to this. I guess I was just slow in comprehending." Kennedy and the remaining teammates pushed Pipkins to the door and propelled him up the steps to the parking lot. They all headed for the hotel, but Kennedy was the last one in the group to hit the door.
Believing Pipkins would be a dead man if caught, Kennedy turned in the doorway, his arms outstretched to prevent the skinheads' pursuit. They walked toward him, chanting "Sieg, Heil!" "Heil, Hitler!" and, as best Kennedy could translate, "We want to see blood" and "We have the power now and are gaining strength." Kennedy's dormant outrage was awakening. "I thought, I don't believe this—that someone should have to run from another person because he's black," he says.
Kennedy yelled at them to leave Pipkins alone. He figured that with Pipkins gone, the skinheads would lose interest. Instead, they circled Kennedy in the pub's parking lot, began shoving him around, then knocked him to the ground. Systematically, the circle of leather-booted skinheads began kicking Kennedy in the ribs, legs and face. "I'll say this about those boots," says Kennedy, "at least they weren't steel-toed."
Bruised and bloodied, he was finally allowed to escape. Back at the hotel Pipkins was shocked to see his roommate's condition. "To have taken a beating for me," Pipkins says, still in disbelief a month later, "to have thought about me.... It's still kind of tough." But the beating raised more bile in Kennedy than blood. Furious, he returned to the bar with police to identify his attackers. And to his amazement there were now 30 smirking skinheads in the bar. They nearly got to Kennedy again; police had to rush him out and lock him in a car. Still, Kennedy was able to ID three of the skinheads, although he regrets that he didn't finger the entire group. "It sucks to have morals," he says. "Next time I won't be fair."
The incident produced huge press in Germany, which had already suffered nearly 5,000 violent acts committed by right-wing extremists since reunification three years ago. The choice of Americans as victims in this case seemed to galvanize the press. DISGRACE! read a huge headline in the tabloid B.Z. The Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel declared, "Those who looked on approvingly when only poor foreigners were mistreated will now have to realize that the bands of thugs with their shaved and hollow heads are not choosy when looking for victims."
Yet Kennedy is not sure the reaction has been appropriate to the level of violence. "The fact that in this day and age, someone might be chased because of the color of his skin...." he says. "I'm still teed off. There are people afraid of these idiots—too many people keeping their mouths shut. Until this, I never had a reason to get directly involved. Never had a reason to think someone would want to kill you."
And now? Beyond his first reaction of vigilantism ("I'd like to go back with a handgun. I'd have no trouble.... Well, forget I said that"), Kennedy feels an inclination to keep the issue alive, to provide a forum for talking about racial injustice. This is odd, coming from Duncan Kennedy, a guy who paints eyes on the back of his helmet, has a tattoo on his shoulder and used to decorate his sled with Bart Simpson stickers. A goofy guy. But anybody can grow up, finally.
"I actually feel kind of ashamed for myself," he says, "in that it's taken this incident to make me this ticked off. Everyone shouldn't have to get beat up, but trust me, you get your ass kicked and you'll lake a stand. Take it from me."
Kennedy's new defiance may next be visible in the Olympics in February, unless the U.S. team happens to get some bad security when it returns to Oberhof for a World Cup event in January ("Oh, we'll be there," Kennedy says. "This is our sport"). At a race in Lillehammer two weeks ago, he was unable to do much with his new attitude. Having jammed two fingers on his right hand while playing handball, he was prevented from paddling full blast in his starts and settled for seventh place. Then last week, although his hand was still bothering him on his starts, Kennedy won two silvers as the World Cup season opened in Latvia. The silvers, last Thursday and Saturday, came as Kennedy made up enough time during his runs to overcome starts so poor that they ranged from 26th to 33rd best in the field.
Come the Olympics, in which he has also taken beatings, Kennedy promises to take another stand, this time letting the sled run a little longer in the straightaways, pushing it to the edge of control, driving aggressively—in other words, attacking. "I need to think, Go for this," he says. "If I hit the walls and crash, fine. I realize now that going about something in a cautious manner is not doing the best I can."
It sounds good, Duncan Kennedy taking control, making something happen, suffering risk. It doesn't sound like luge as we've known it, but it sounds good. He was talking about luge, wasn't he?
The essence of luge is free-falling surrender, which used to be the way Kennedy approached life.
AP PHOTO/JENS MEYER
Pipkins is still amazed at the way his roomie stood up for him at the Oberhof bar (top).
[See caption above.]
AP PHOTO/JENS MEYER
The road to Lillehammer goes through Oberhof once more, and the U.S. won't detour.