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    Born to Luge

    Georg Hackl is a techno whiz, Markus Prock is a natural athlete. The Olympics have belonged to Hackl, the World Cup circuit to Prock. Now, the final act of one of the greatest, if most obscure, rivalries in sports is about to begin

    by Tim Layden

    Posted: Wed February 4, 1998

    A celebration was readied on the Saturday afternoon last January when the World Luge Championships concluded on a mountainside above the tiny Austrian village of Igls. Just two sliders remained in the men's singles competition, and it seemed certain to the crowd lining the icy track that Markus Prock, who lives only 10 miles away in Mieders and had learned to slide at age 12 on this very run, would hold his tiny first-run margin over Georg Hackl of Germany and secure the world title. Prock's wife, Christina, stood near the finish, holding their 18-month-old daughter, Nina; his parents, Brigitte and Peter, waited nearby. Many in the crowd were friends and neighbors, willing Prock's victory.

    Luge01.jpg (16k)
    While Germany's Hackl (top) is only a so-so starter, Austria's Prock (below)is the best in the business.   HEINZ KLUETMEIER
    Yet a ripple of dread coursed through the audience when Hackl began accelerating through ever-faster split times down the 1,220-meter track and shot past the finish line in 49.236 seconds. It was the fastest time of the second run by nearly a quarter of a second—hours, in luge terms—a statistic made implausible by the condition of the course (ice turning to sled-slowing slush) and by Hackl's pedestrian start (3.93 seconds for approximately the first 20 meters, just the eighth fastest of the second run). Every previous slider on the final run had struggled to hold his speed, yet Hackl had gotten faster as he approached the bottom. "Unbelievable," said U.S. doubles slider Gordy Sheer as Hackl flashed past in the finish area. "Where did that time come from?"

    Luge02.jpg (12k)
    HEINZ KLUETMEIER
    Moments later Prock screeched through the finish line almost .3 of a second behind Hackl's time for the second run. Silver medal. He knew it as soon as he gathered his sled and turned to look at his family, coaches and teammates. "They stood there and said nothing," Prock recalled months later. "When you win, they shout, they wave, they hug you. When you lose, everybody is quiet."

    Prock had heard this silence before. At the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, Hackl snatched the gold medal from Prock on the last of four runs by a margin of .01. Two years before that, at the Albertville Games, Hackl led throughout the final day, leaving Prock with the silver. Now, on this cold, gray afternoon in the Tyrolean Alps, Sheer's doubles partner, Chris Thorpe, looked at Prock and shook his head. "My god," he said. "He must have nightmares."


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    PERHAPS YOU'VE never heard their names: Markus Prock, Georg Hackl. Perhaps you don't even know that luge is an Olympic sport in which men and women lie on tiny sleds made of fiberglass and steel, and hurtle themselves down the side of a mountain in the trough of a twisting channel of ice at speeds that can surpass 80 mph, steering only with their toes, braking only when they reach the finish. Fastest to the bottom wins. But even if you know none of this, you know Hackl and Prock because you have seen their kind in other games, on other fields. One is blessed with size, strength, speed and natural athleticism; the other is smaller, weaker and slower, and out of his arena he might not be thought an athlete at all. But when the stakes are highest, he wins.

    In eight of the last 11 years Prock, 33, has won the World Cup overall title by accumulating the most points in a season. These crowns underscore his consistency and support the widespread assumption by his peers that there has never been a more gifted slider. Hackl, 31, won the overall title back in 1989 and '90 but not since. Yet it is Hackl who owns three Olympic medals (the aforementioned two golds and a silver from Calgary in 1988). And it is Prock who, after falling apart and finishing 11th as a 23-year-old favorite in Calgary, has twice settled for the silver behind Hackl. If you need a mainstream sports translation, think of it this way: Prock is Dan Marino, with all those records. Hackl is Joe Montana, with all those rings. "The Olympics," says Prock mournfully, "they don't like me so much."

    Luge08.jpg (14k)
    Before he leaped into luging, the 6'1", 195-pound Prock was an outstanding skier, soccer player and runner.   ROLF KOSECKI
    The last act of this drama will be played out in Nagano. Prock will again be the logical favorite, bringing his consummate skills to war with his brittle nerves. Hackl will again be his tormentor, lying as still as death on his sled, blind to pressure when it's worst.


    HACKL AND PROCK are children of the mountains, born and raised three hours apart along the ribbon of the Alps that crosses central Europe and breeds passion for winter sports that are mere curiosities in the U.S. Hackl's home has always been Berchtesgaden, Germany, a resort town in southern Bavaria, 90 miles from Munich and nine miles from Salzburg, Austria. Although it is infamous as the home of Hitler's mountain retreat, Berchtesgaden is also a wonderland of forest and pastures, carved by glacial streams and guarded by 10,000-foot peaks on three sides. The centerpiece of the region is the crystalline Königssee, a lake above which curls the final traverse of the luge run on which Hackl learned to slide.

    Continued

    Issue date: February 9, 1998



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