Germany has more sliding tracks than any other nation, plus always seems to be ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to technology and any other innovation that can be used to get a sled down the ice faster than anyone else.
Nowhere has that dominance been on display than the Olympics.
There have been six nations with an Olympic gold medal in luge. Germany, East Germany and West Germany have combined for 31 golds in Olympic luge events, while the rest of the world has 13. Italy has seven, Austria five and the Soviet Union won one.
“We’re always under pressure,” German doubles star Sascha Benecken said. “But the pressure we put on ourselves is much tougher.”
USA Luge has made great strides in recent years, and comes into these Olympics bolstered by Erin Hamlin’s bronze medal at the Sochi Games four years ago. The doubles team of Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman could be in the medal mix as well, and men’s sliders Tucker West and Chris Mazdzer have had plenty of finishes that show they can compete with anyone.
Austria, Italy, Canada and Latvia should also contend for medals. The wild card would be the lugers from Russia, some of whom have results that suggest they would be medal contenders — if permitted to compete. Russia will not have a team at these Olympics because of the doping fallout from the Sochi Games, though some athletes from that nation will be allowed to be in Pyeongchang under the Olympic flag.
Here’s some of what to know going into luge at the Pyeongchang Games:
In men’s luge, Germany, where Felix Loch is going for a third straight win. In women’s luge, Germany, where Natalie Geisenberger will seek repeat gold. In doubles luge, Germany again. And in the team relay, let’s say Germany. Put it this way: If any other national anthem gets played to commemorate a gold medalist after a luge race in Pyeongchang, it’s going to be called an upset.
There was a time not long ago, where the best rivalry in the sport probably was the every-race-weekend battle between Geisenberger and Tatjana Huefner. From the same country, they were coached separately and had distinctly different styles. Their relationship seems to be nowhere near as frosty now, but the rivalry will be real again in South Korea.
Summer Britcher is in her second Olympics, Emily Sweeney her first, but neither is new to the world stage and both American women could be in the medal hunt if they avoid a big mistake. If allowed to compete, Russia’s Roman Repilov might be the newcomer to watch on the men’s side. Only 21, he’s already won a World Cup overall title. Fairly or unfairly, because of Russia’s history, there’s no shortage of skepticism about his rapid rise.
For the first time since 1984, the Olympic men’s luge medalists will not include either Germany’s Georg Hackl or Italy’s Armin Zoeggeler. Hackl won silver in 1988, gold in 1992, 1994 and 1998, then silver again in 2002. Zoeggeler won bronze in 1994, silver in 1998, gold in 2002 and 2006, bronze in 2010 and finished third in 2014 (though that will eventually be upgraded to silver because Albert Demchenko’s medal was stripped as part of the Russia doping scandal). Hackl and Zoeggeler now are coaches for their respective nations.
The only difference in Olympic competition from World Cup racing is in men’s and women’s singles, where the event is four runs over two days instead of the customary two-heat, one-day format. Doubles is still a two-run, one-day race, and the team relay format also is unchanged from the World Cup norm.
2014 bronze medalist Erin Hamlin of the U.S. closes her career on Feb. 13, when the women’s luge competition concludes. She is retiring after two decades of sliding.
Aileen Frisch used to compete for Germany, and retired a couple years ago but is now back with an unusual story. She’s likely to compete in these Olympics for South Korea. The host nation, which doesn’t have a storied luge history, offered her a passport with hopes of bolstering its sliding profile. Frisch trained for several weeks after sustaining a foot and leg injury earlier this season.