The New Luge

Yesterday we went to see the Men’s Luge event, featuring the final two of four runs, to determine who will bring home the gold in a sport that just two days cast a long, dark shadow over the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony.

If you weren’t paying attention, you could have forgotten than only 50 hours before a young man was flung to his death in a grizzly accident. The sun was out, cool jazzy music was playing, and the announcer was upbeat. Walking throughout the woodsy area up the length of the track all the way to the top, we spotted avid fans draped in Indian flags, kids munching on cookies as parents sipped cups of beer, and looked out in the view of the snowy mountain across the valley.

The luge event is remarkably accessible. In many places you can reach out and touch the track. You can choose whether to check out the lugists at the top where they’re just gathering speed, through the wide turn at the bottom when they’re at their fastest, or in the very very long uphill runout where they gradually slow down. You are so close you could see their faces, if they weren’t going so quickly. It’s a game to guess what colors they were wearing. Groups of people cheer on their friends when they actually manage to snap a picture of the blur whizzing by.

But in fact the lugists yesterday were not hitting the speeds that they had in training just last week. Everything may have looked “normal” to the onlookers, but behind the scenes a lot has changed. Lugists report that the normal pre-race excitement was subdued. At least one volunteer in the press office was too shaken up to return to work.

The most obvious change was in the area where Nodar Kumaritashvili was flung off his sled. A wall has been built behind that area. Further along, the potentially lethal steel beams have been covered with bright orange padding. Medical personnel throng the area, with ambulances only steps away.

Critically, the speed that is so striking to us spectators is actually at least 15km/hour slower than it had been a few days earlier. A safety crew member told me it’s a visible difference. A few of those on the inside say the safety measures put in place to Kumaritashvili’s were excessive, changing the track from the fastest in the world to one which is simply too slow. But both circumstances and expedience came into play.

The Men’s Luge start was moved to the ladies luge start at Turn Three, while the Ladies Luge start was moved to the junior start at Turn Six. It would have been practically impossible to build a new start at, say, turn One and a Half. A lot of technology goes into that special start-line and in fact they were still completing the new Ladies start zone one day before the competition. A technician was measuring the wooden steps and a cameraman I spoke to said they would have to work into the evening to figure out how to set up the best camera angle in its new location.

The sunshine that was so pleasant for us spectators was also threatening to slow down the event further. Armies of volunteers pulled down awnings in between runs until at one point in the afternoon they had to keep large portions of the track shaded off from onlookers. Finally, at around 4pm, when the sun went behind the hill all the awnings were opened, the entire track was sprayed down by two more intrepid volunteers walking the length of it with crampons on their boots, and the final fifteen were off!

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