Hold on tight and become a luge instant expert
Everything you need to know about one of the most dangerous Olympic sports
By Benjamin Blum, CBC Sports
To the naked eye, luge looks simple: spandex-clad people careening down an icy track like you would if you went sledding feet-first in winter. But for Olympic athletes, manoeuvring a tiny sled at speeds of about 140 km/h is no small feat — especially if you consider that they don't have brakes.
Here's everything you need to know to instantly become a luge expert:
History and format
- First international race held in 1883 in Davos
- Olympic debut in 1964 in Innsbruck
- Men's and women's individual races, men's doubles and team relay
How the events work
- Individual and doubles races consist of four runs over two days
- Team relay event consists of three consecutive runs (one female, one male, one doubles)
- Lowest total time wins
Getting on track
Luge, bobsleigh and skeleton all use the same ice track for competition, with the three sports sharing Swiss origins from the late 19th century. Men's singles races run the full length of the track, while women's, men's doubles and team relay races start at a lower point on the track.
Sliders start in a seated position, rocking back and forth while holding two handles. They then launch themselves forward and use their hands to helps propel themselves until they're ready to lie down completely flat.
For the relay event, which made its Olympic debut at the 2014 Games in Sochi, sliders hit a touchpad at the end of their run to open the start gates for their teammates at the top, all while the clock ticks away.
Dangers of the sport
The threat of serious injury and even death is something that requires consideration when discussing luge. A combination of minimal protection and experiencing the force of up to five Gs on their bodies while racing leaves athletes vulnerable.
Nodar Kumaritashvili, a Georgian luger, died as the result of a crash during a training run hours before the opening ceremony of the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Kumaritashvili was the fourth person to die during a Winter Olympics and the second luger; Britain's Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki died during a training run at luge's Olympic debut in 1964.
Track design and maintenance also factor into the safety of competitors. Following Kumaritashvili's death, changes were made to the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre, but safety concerns were previously raised by Vancouver's organizing committee.
What do they wear/use?
Lugers wear racing suits, helmets with face shields, neck straps to help keep their heads off the track and special boots and gloves. Sleds are designed to be as aerodynamic as possible within the legal size limits, with a pod for one or two people and sharp steels affixed to the runners that — as the name suggests — run the length of the sled.
One other cool feature to mention: sliders attach spikes to their gloves to help while "paddling" at the beginning of the track. Oh, you better believe "paddling" is the technical term for it...
A Loch for gold?
Germany, either divided or united, has dominated Olympic luge since its debut and won all four golds at the Sochi Games four years ago. Men's champ Felix Loch is looking to match landsmann Georg Hackl with his third consecutive men's gold, while Natalie Geisenberger is looking to win back-to-back women's titles.
Canada is sending eight lugers to the Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The country has fared well recently on the World Cup circuit and just missed the women's and doubles podiums in Sochi.
The Canadian relay team of Alex Gough, Sam Edney and doubles pair Tristan Walker and Justin Snih were in line for an upgrade to bronze after Russia's silver-winning squad in Sochi was disqualified due to doping, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the Russian ban and reinstated the team's results.
Secrets to sounding smart
Still want to learn more about luge? Here are a few things to tell your friends to make you sound like a sliding savant:
- How exactly do you steer? Since lugers' arms are at their sides, they navigate by flexing the sled's runners using their calves and by shifting their body weight subtly, so as to not cause additional friction.
- Parlez-vous suisse romand? The word luge means "sled" in Swiss French (as well as in traditional French), an homage to the sport's roots in St. Moritz.
- Street luge is a thing, and it's awesome. Trade in steels for wheels and you've got the summertime equivalent of this extreme sport. If you can't afford a proper street luge, just lie on a skateboard and see what happens. (Disclaimer: Obviously don't do that).