Schedule of Events
Four years ago, the designers of the course that hosted the sliding events at the Vancouver Olympics strove to create the fastest, most harrowing track in the history of these events. Unfortunately, however, the quest for speed ended in tragedy before the Games could even begin. During a practice session in the days leading up to the commencement of the Olympiad, 21-year-old Georgian luge racer Nodar Kumaritashvili was nearing the end of his run when his sled lost control and careened up and over the banking of the track. Flying through the air, Kumaritashvili collided with a steel support pillar and was killed upon impact.After the tragedy, the Olympic organizers in Vancouver moved the start platform further down the track in an effort to prevent as much buildup of velocity. There would be no more fatal incidents, and for the most part the athletes managed to escape without injuries from their runs. But the legacy of Vancouver would directly steer the course for the designers of Sochi’s sliding center four years later.
The Russians had originally planned to design a course that would eclipse the speed records set in Canada four years prior. The first set of plans would have created a track that would have accelerated racers to speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour in some sections. After Kumaritashvili’s death, though, sliding sports suddenly shifted their thinking about the speed equation.
The track in Sochi will feature something rarely if ever seen in sliding sports — inclines designed to slow down sleds at certain points of the course. With three hills built into the course, it will be a more technical challenge for athletes rather than merely a white-knuckle test of nerves. Some Olympians have voiced concerns that this unique feature of the track could benefit Russian competitors, given that they will have had more time to practice and learn the idiosyncrasies of the venue.
But in the men’s competition, it is highly unlikely that anybody is knocking off Felix Loch. The 24-year-old German is the defending Olympic gold medalist, having become the youngest-ever luge champion when he won the title four years ago in Vancouver. He arrives in Sochi as the reigning world champion as well, having won the fourth world title of his still-young career last winter in on the same track in Whistler where he won Olympic gold.And for Loch, his greatest competition is likely to come not from the Russians or the luge racers from another country. Instead, the biggest threats to his chances of winning a second straight Olympic crown are his compatriots. Both Andi Langenhan, who took silver behind Loch at the world championships last year, and 2010 Olympic silver medalist David Möller have a legitimate shot at restoring Germany’s preeminence on the luge podium.
Russia’s best hope for a podium placing will be Albert Demtschenko. The 42-year-old was the World Cup champion in 2005, but after winning silver in Torino the Russian was unable to break through in 2010, finishing just off the podium in fourth. Two years ago, at the world championships in Altenberg, he managed to earn another silver medal for his trophy case. But while extra practice time at Sanki might provide some semblance of a competitive advantage, it will still be hard to break the German stranglehold.
One other man who might have a legitimate shot is somebody who has been on the top step before. Italy’s Armin Zöggeler, the 2002 and 2006 Olympic champion in men’s singles, was relegated to the bronze step in Vancouver. For five straight Olympics, Zöggeler has reached the podium in men’s singles — bronze in Lillehammer as a 20-year-old in 1994, silver four years later in Nagano, gold in Salt Lake City and Torino, and the bronze from Vancouver. At 40, this could be the last chance for fans to catch the Italian stalwart of sliding.
On the women’s side, the Germans are equally dominant. Four years ago it was Tatjana Hüfner who emerged victorious in Vancouver, with her younger teammate Natalie Geisenberger capturing bronze behind Austria’s Nina Reithmayer. Both Hüfner and Geisenberger have continued to be mainstays on World Cup and world championships podiums since the past Olympiad.Geisenberger, who will turn 26 just before the start of the Sochi Games, has the inside track to gold this time around. She is the defending world champion, having bested everyone else at Whistler last winter. This season, she is also one race away from defending her World Cup championship from 2012-2013 after winning seven of the eight races that have already been held prior to the Olympics.
At 30, Hüfner is hardly washed up at this point of her career. The defending gold medalist from Vancouver won five straight World Cup titles from 2007-2008 to 2011-2012, only Geisenberger’s title last year ending her reign atop the sport. And though she missed out on a three-peat in Whistler thanks to her teammate, she still finished with a silver medal behind Geisenberger at last year’s world championships.
The biggest challenger to the hegemony of the German women on the track in Sochi is Canada’s Alex Gough. The 26-year-old from Calgary finds herself ahead of Hüfner in this year’s World Cup standings, having reached the podium six times in eight races. Last year in Whistler she took third between Geisenberger and Hüfner at the world championships, equaling her best finish from 2011 at worlds. Set to compete in her third Olympics, Gough has the best shot of stealing silver away from Hüfner, though it would be a huge upset were she to wrest away gold from Geisenberger.
Tatiana Ivanova has a shot as well at winning a medal in her home country, having finished fourth in Vancouver four years ago. Ivanova nearly won her third straight European championship earlier this month, and two years ago she was a silver medalist at the world championships. The Russian will turn 22 years old three days after the end of the luge program in Sochi, and could give herself a present with a podium finish.
The defending Olympic champs in the doubles luge, brothers Andreas and Wolfgang Linger of Austria, will have their hands full trying to win a second straight gold. Once again, Germany leads the charge, with the team of Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt arriving in Sochi as the defending world champion. Their teammates, Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken, were right behind them for the silver in Whistler to beat out the Linger brothers.Other contenders include the Russian team of Vladislav Yuzhakov and Vladimir Makhnutin, which will hope that the extra training time on their home track will pay dividends. Look out as well for the Italian pair of Christian Oberstolz and Patrick Gruber, who just missed the podium in Vancouver and won the last race on the World Cup circuit prior to Sochi.
There will also be a new team relay competition this year. The relay involves a men’s single run, a women’s single run, and a run by a doubles pair. Each sled will start at the top gate on the track, racing in sequence as the time continues to tick. Sensors at the bottom of the track will open up the gate at the top for each new competitor as the equivalent of the baton pass. When the three runs have been completed, the clock will stop and that time will determine the Olympic champion. Just as in everything else in the luge world, the Germans will be the team to beat until proven otherwise.
Luge Medal Favorites
|MEN'S SINGLES||Felix Loch (GER)||Andi Langenhan (GER)||David Möller (GER)|
|WOMEN'S SINGLES||Natalie Geisenberger (GER)||Alex Gough (CAN)||Tatjana Hüfner (GER)|
|MEN'S DOUBLES||Wendl/Arlt (GER)||Linger/Linger (AUT)||Eggert/Benecken (GER)|