Olympic Luge 2014: Complete Guide for Sochi Winter Olympics

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistJanuary 30, 2014

Olympic Luge 2014: Complete Guide for Sochi Winter Olympics

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    The high-speed and dangerous luge event begins its run at the Winter Olympics on Feb. 8 and finishes on Feb. 13.

    The sport receives little attention in the United States, with the Winter Olympics providing luge its only significant exposure every four years.

    Germany has dominated the sport, and lugers from Austria and Italy have also had success. Americans have never won a gold medal in an Olympic luge event and have not won any medal in men’s or women’s singles.

Overview

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    Luge consists of four events at the Olympics: men's singles, women's singles, doubles and team relay. Team relay is an Olympic event for the first time this year.

    Participants lie on the small sled in a supine position, which means they are on their backs, looking up, with their feet first as they race down the course.

    The sled has two runners that are controlled by the competitor's legs, enabling the racer to steer. Racers can obtain speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour.

    Unlike the bobsled or skeleton, luge competitors begin the race seated on the sled and push themselves with their hands at the start.

    Each singles competitor completes four runs down the course, with the cumulative times of the four heats determining the order of finish and medal awards.

    In the doubles event, two competitors from the same country race on one luge, and the order of finish is determined by the cumulative time over two runs.

    The team relay consists of a women’s singles luger, a men’s singles luger and a doubles team, all from the same country, and the three race consecutively over the course. The order of finish is based on the combined times of the three racers.

    Competition is held on the 20-turn course at the Sliding Center Sanki, which is located in Rzhanaya Polyana, Russia, which is about 37 miles from Sochi.

History

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    The first luge World Championships were held in Oslo, Norway in 1955, and luge became an Olympic sport in the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. Three luge events have been held in every Winter Olympic Games since then: men's singles, women's singles and doubles. A fourth luge event, team relay, was added this year.

    German-speaking athletes have dominated the sport. All but one Olympic luge gold medal has been won by an athlete from Germany, Austria or the South Tyrol region of Italy, where German is the dominant language.

    Twenty-seven of the 40 luge Olympic gold medals awarded have gone to athletes from Germany (including East Germany and West Germany when the country was divided).

    The United States' first Olympic luge team consisted mainly of American soldiers who were stationed in Europe. The United States’ first refrigerated luge run was constructed in 1979 in advance of the 1980 in Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

    Olympic luge competition has proved to be dangerous and has produced at least two tragedies.

    During the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed during a training run. According to a Sports Illustrated report, he lost control while traveling 88 miles per hour and struck structural poles lining the course.

    A previous Olympic luge fatality occurred during the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, the first time luge was an Olympic event. That year, British competitor Kazimierz Kay died during a training run.

Schedule

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    Schedule of luge heats for the 2014 Winter Olympics

    February 8: Men’s singles heats 1 and 2, 9:30 a.m. ET

    February 9: Men’s singles heats 3 and 4, 9:30 a.m. ET

    February 10: Women’s singles heats 1 and 2, 9:45 a.m. ET

    February 11: Women’s singles heats 3 and 4, 9:30 a.m. ET

    February 12: Doubles Heats 1 and 2, 9:15 a.m. ET

    February 13: Team relay, 11:15 a.m. ET

Athletes to Watch

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    Felix Loch: The German star won the gold medal in the 2010 Olympics and is the favorite in Sochi after back-to-back World Championship titles.

    Armin Zoeggeler: The 40-year-old Zoeggeler will try to be the first athlete to win six Olympic medals in an individual event. Zoeggeler, who will be the flag-bearer for Italy in the opening ceremonies, was a gold medalist in 2002 and 2006.

    Natalie Geisenberger: Geisenberger, who is German, was a bronze medalist at the 2010 Olympics and is the reigning world champion.

    Erin Hamlin: She won a world championship in 2009 and will try to become the first American to win an Olympic luge medal in women’s singles. She finished 12th in women’s singles at the 2010 Winter Games.

    Chris Mazdzer: Mazdzer was the first athlete nominated for the 2014 U.S. Olympic luge team and has an outside chance to be the first American to win an Olympic medal in men’s singles.

    Kate Hansen: She won the most recent World Cup women's singles event, making her a medal contender for the United States.

Men's Luge

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    Felix Loch, the defending Olympic champion in men’s singles, is the favorite to win the 2014 Olympic title and continue the German dominance. A German athlete has won nine of the 13 gold medals awarded in men’s singles, and Loch will attempt to make it 10 of 14.

    The sentimental favorite may be Armin Zoeggeler, a 40-year-old Italian who won Olympic gold in 2002 and 2006 and was a bronze medalist in 2010. He will be the flag-bearer for Italy at the Winter Games and is attempting to become the first athlete to win six Olympic medals in an individual event.

    America’s top hope is Chris Mazdzer, but much of the attention will be on 18-year-old Tucker West, the youngest male to qualify for the American Olympic luge squad.

Women's Luge

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    Tatjana Hufner and Natalie Geisenberger will try to continue Germany’s dominance in this event. Germans have won gold medals in women's singles in each of the last four Olympics and have captured 10 of a possible 12 medals in that span.

    Hufner, the defending Olympic champion, and Geisenberger, the 2010 bronze medalist and the reigning world champion, are the favorites to keep that dominance going.

    Erin Hamlin and Kate Hansen are the top American hopes in the event, but the absence of another American, Julia Clukey, is also a story. A month after the 2010 Winter Games, Clukey was diagnosed with Arnold-Chiari Syndrome, a malformation of the brain. She had surgery to remove a few millimeters from the base of her skull and is back competing. However, she was beaten out for a place on the U.S. Olympic team by 19-year-old U.S. junior champion Summer Britcher.

     

Doubles

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    Although there are no rules as to whether men or women can compete in doubles, participants are almost exclusively men.

    This is the only luge event in which the United States has won an Olympic medal, capturing silver and bronze medals in both the 1998 and 2002 Winter Games. The Americans have little chance to win a medal in this discipline this year, however.

    The chief storyline is Germany's bid to regain dominance in the event after Austrians captured the gold medal the past two Olympics.

    Two German pairs are expected to battle it out for the gold this year. Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arit have won six of the last eight World Cup events they've entered. Another German team, Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken, are the only doubles team to beat Wendl and Arit in that span.

Team Relay

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    The team relay is making its debut as an Olympic event this year. It consists of a women’s singles luger, a men’s singles luger and a doubles team from a given country that race consecutively over the course. After each of the first two segments, the athlete hits a touchpad at the finish line that opens the starting gate for the luge in the next segment. The cumulative time of the three runs by a given country determines the order of finish.

    The event is new to the Olympics. It provides a country-based aspect since medals will be awarded to national teams rather than to individuals.

    The Germans are the favorites, of course, since they have dominated all facets of the luge over the years.

    However, this may be the United States’ best opportunity for a medal in Olympic luge competition this year. The Americans won the silver medal in the team relay at the Park City World Cup in December.

Team USA Outlook

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    Kate Hansen gives the United States hope for its first Olympic luge medal in singles. She was a surprise winner in the final stop of the women's World Cup season on Jan. 25, becoming the first American to win a singles race on the circuit since Nov. 22, 1997. Several of the top women's athletes did not compete in that event, however.

    Americans Erin Hamlin and Chris Mazdzer also have an outside shot to earn a medal in the women’s and men’s singles events, respectively.

    However, the United States’ best opportunity for a medal is in the team relay. The inclusion of Mazdzer and either Hansen or Hamlin gives the Americans enough depth to finish in the top three in that competition, which is an Olympic event for the first time.

    The only Olympic medals Americans have won in luge have come in doubles. The United States won silver and bronze medals in doubles in both 1998 and 2002, but it will be hard pressed to earn a medal in that event this time.

Medal Predictions

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    Men’s singles:

    Gold: Felix Loch, Germany

    Sliver: Armin Zöeggeler, Italy

    Bronze: David Moller, Germany 

    Women’s singles:

    Gold: Natalie Geisenberger, Germany

    Silver: Tatjana Hüfner, Germany

    Bronze: Alex Gough, Canada 

    Doubles:

    Gold: Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arit, Germany

    Silver: Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken, Germany

    Bronze: Christian Oberstolz and Patrick Gruber, Italy 

    Team Relay:

    Gold: Germany

    Silver: Italy

    Bronze: United States