Posted: Monday February 13, 2006 8:33AM; Updated: Monday February 13, 2006 10:10PM
Armin Zoeggeler took home Italy's first gold of these Olympic Games in the luge on Sunday.
TURIN, Italy -- "The Italians have three national sports," an Italian who identified himself as Max told me during the luge competition at Cesana Pariol on Sunday night. "First is complaining, followed by soccer and Formula One Grand Prix. They don't care much for sports like luge."
You wouldn't have guessed it if you had witnessed the noisy aftermath of the final run of the evening. After 32-year-old Armin Zoeggeler sealed Italy's first gold medal of these games with a fourth-run time of 51.526, hundreds of Italians who had been watching the runs from along the course stormed the grandstand near the medal stand, momentarily forgetting both their famed indifference to winter sports and the critical Italian league soccer game then being played between Juventus of Turin and Inter Milan. Suddenly, it seemed, Italy was silly for slittino. Throngs chanted "I-tal-ia!," shook cowbells and stood on tippytoes to get a picture of the champion in the silver helmet. No, they wouldn't be adding luge to their list of national passions, a volunteer named Orazio Parisi assured me. "But the first gold medal is always important."
Zoeggeler, a handsome, soft-spoken policeman who wears a soul patch on his chin and shares the nickname "Cannibal" with another nearly invincible athlete, five-time Tour de France winner Eddy Mercyx, adds this medal to a glittering collection that includes a gold medal from Salt Lake City, a silver from Nagano, a bronze from Lillehammer, and five world championships. Though luge is not well-known or celebrated in Italy, Zoeggeler was expected to win, on a difficult track he knows probably better than most, and bring honor to the host country. "This was the most difficult medal of my career," he said on Sunday. "The pressure was a lot yesterday."
For his triumph, Zoeggeler will be awarded 130,000 Euros by the Italian Olympic Committee. A fellow carabiniere sitting in on his post-win press conference wondered if a promotion in the department may be waiting for him when he gets back to his hometown of Voellan-Lana, as well. But fame? It probably won't last much beyond today's headlines. It's a shame, says Zoeggeler. "This is demanding sport and we train hard like every other Olympian."
It's a shame, too, because Zoeggeler is exceptionally good at what he does. Though retiring German luger Georg Hackl, who finished seventh on Sunday and thus failed in his attempt to become the first athlete to medal in six consecutive games (he won golds in 1992, '94, '98 and silvers in '88 and '02), might dispute it, there are those who believe Zoeggeler is the best ever. "There are journalists who say I am the best," says Zoeggeler, "but I have never said this word about myself."
"I can tell you he is one of the best sliders I've ever seen," says Tony Benshoof of the U.S., who came in fourth, failing to become the first American to win an Olympic medal in singles luge by .153 of a second. "He's someone I aspire to took like as a slider. He's very flat, and he barely [looks up]. It's tough to do that at 90 miles an hour. "
This sport is tough to do, period. If you pick it up as an adult, the chances for glory are virtually nil. Zoeggeler first got a taste of it at age 7, when he'd leave his house in the South Tyrol and fly down the hill on a sled to catch the school bus. Hackl started learning at 11, Benshoof at 13. Seventeen years later Benshoof hopes his best is still to come. "It takes a long time to get good because it is so precise," says Benshoof. "It's down to thousandths of a second. Very little movements on the sled make a difference. And it takes a long time to learn that. It's difficult to explain unless you've been on the sled."
Most Italians will never get on a sled, will never grasp just how difficult this sport is. But at least for one evening, they seemed to appreciate that they had a master in their midst.