There is one reigning world champion on Austria's Winter Olympics team who could walk through any coffeehouse in Vienna and no one would even look up from his afternoon tea. His name is Markus Prock, his sport is luge, and he's about as famous in Austria as, say, a world archery champion would be in the United States.
"Well, I just accept that," says Prock. "But no matter the sport, everybody knows an Olympic champion, right?"
Right. And the idea of a gold medal in luge going to an Austrian doesn't sound nearly as farfetched as it did a year ago. That was when Prock, a 23-year-old platoon commander in the Austrian army, piloted a borrowed sled to victory in the '87 worlds. Going into the competition on his home course at Igls, near Innsbruck, Prock was considered a comer, but not a threat to unseat the East Germans, who have dominated singles luge for the past 20 years.
"If everything went well," says Prock, speaking through an interpreter, "the feeling was that I could finish in the top six. No one thought I had the nerves to finish higher." But he did, edging Jens Mueller of East Germany and Sergei Danilin of the Soviet Union.
Prock's angular six-foot, 160-pound body is dotted with muscle. He looks like an athlete and moves like an athlete. He resembles a small-college option quarterback or a quarter-miler—in fact, he ran a respectable 50.96 400 meters last year to finish second in the Tyrolean Open Championships.
Prock feels that his conditioning—he lifts weights three or four times a week and mixes interval training with long-distance running—has been one of the major factors in his success. "Traditionally the East Germans are the best-conditioned lugers in the world," he says, "and I feel that I'm on a par with them."
But is athleticism really necessary for the luger, who resembles a human projectile-more than anything else? The luger spends almost the entire race flat on his back, guiding his sled through the sharply inclined, multicurved (13 on the Calgary track) 1,250-meter course with subtle movements of the body and feet. He (or she) may reach speeds of 55 miles per hour, relying on instinct, knowledge of the course and pure guts to get to the finish first. Each time a luger lifts his head to check his path he loses precious time; Prock, for example, may look up only two or three times during a run that takes about 50 seconds. A sport for the deranged, perhaps, but surely not the athletic.
Not true, says Prock, who points out that athleticism is a major factor in the pretimed part of the race, when the luger pushes his sled down a steep incline toward the starting line. The greater the head of steam in this prestart, the faster the run. "If you get a bad start by maybe three or four hundredths of a second, you can make it up," he says. "But if you're one tenth of a second behind, forget it."
A racer needs at least three other things, too: nerve in great quantity, luge technique and the mechanical ability to make on-the-spot modifications to his sled. Prock is weakest in this last area. "I'm trying," he says. "But I am not very good with the tools." For example, at last year's worlds, Prock couldn't get what he wanted out of his own luge so he borrowed one from teammate Georg Fluckinger. The first words out of Markus's mouth after he won the world title were a thank you to Fluckinger, who has since been named the team's technical coach.
Like many Austrian schoolchildren, Prock grew up on a sled, sliding, in winter, down the hills between home and school. But becoming a luge racer is not the next logical step for an Austrian boy or girl. Skiing is the national passion of Austria. Anywhere in the country you can strike up a conversation about the fortunes of the ski team, which happen to be declining at the moment, but ask an Austrian about Markus Prock and the reply is a blank look. An exception can be found in Mieders, the lovely village in the Stubai Valley where Prock lives with his parents: Peter, who owns a gas station, and Brigitte, who manages the family's eight-room tourist house (Pension Prock), which caters to skiers in the winter and Alpine climbers in the summer. In Mieders, a banner on the local post office proclaims MARKUS PROCK, RODEL-WELTMEISTER '87 (luge world champion '87).