"They call this Olympic team? I think so. But what you expect from such athletes? They don't have no practices. They don't have no program. This is Olympic team? I am surprise."
—Piotr Rogowski, Polish refugee recently named head coach of the U.S. Olympic luge team.
A luge is a small sled, a basic tool of transportation considerably older than the wheel. Drawings scratched on cave walls during the Neolithic age depict luges at work as movers of stone and haulers of wild animal meat. In the intervening 5,000 years, the relationship between man and his trusty luge has undergone spectacular change—from a slow and sensible conveyor of burdens, it has been transformed into a sleek vehicle of speed, terrible risk and a certain beauty.
High above the medieval Tyrolean village of Igls, which is in turn perched high above the medieval Tyrolean city of Innsbruck, lies the architectural centerpiece of the XII Winter Olympiad: a graceful falling squiggle of white ice called the Kombinierte Kunsteisbahn f�r Bob und Rodel—the combined bobsled and luge run. It streams 1,220 meters down the mountainside in a series of swerves, curls, hooks and hairpins, its center a lovely 360-degree loop known as the Kreisel, which means "child's top." It is a beautifully engineered run that cost about $5� million with its refrigerated track and retractable awnings to protect it from the sun. Though lugers and bobbers reach speeds of 90 mph on the run, its design is so safe (so they say) that when the Games are over, any mad tourist with $3 for a ticket will be allowed to take the whole hair-raising ride.
The ancient art of sledding will occupy a special place in the 1976 Winter Games, if for no other reason than the bob-luge run, which is the one truly dazzling addition to Innsbruck's 1964 Olympic venues. These were to be the Games of Denver—remember?—but because the voters of Colorado, in their wisdom, refused to endorse the organizing committee's half-baked plans, everything was returned to Innsbruck. Thus, the XII Olympiad will be accompanied by massive waves of d�j� vu. When the opening ceremonies begin next Wednesday afternoon in the Bergisel Stadium below the 90-meter ski jump, the setting will be nearly identical to that of 1964, except for a new concrete tower on the jump and a new urn for the Olympic flame. The Alpine ski runs are again located at Patscherkofel and Lizum, and the Nordic races are once more near the pretty hamlet of Seefeld. An early winter attack of Tyrolean "warm storms" left the Alps around Innsbruck almost totally barren of snow, precisely as they were in 1964. And this forced Olympic officials to launch a trucking operation to haul uncountable tons of snow down from the Brenner Pass, precisely as they did in 1964. Even Innsbruck's Olympic fanfare will be the same 16th century melody that was used before. But a major difference between 1964 and 1976 is the awareness of danger that has preoccupied Olympic planners of late; the atrocities of Munich occurred only 130 miles from Innsbruck. Just six weeks ago, terrorists killed three men and took some 80 hostages in Vienna during an oil ministers' conference. Officials in Innsbruck have checked and rechecked their security precautions and issued reassurances. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of Vienna the Shah of Iran, who had rented an entire luxury hotel in Igls for his entourage, canceled his plans to attend the Games.
Almost no one else did, however, and 1,500 competitors are expected in Innsbruck. They will be accompanied by 550 assorted traveling statesmen, bureaucrats, managers, officials, functionaries and other blue-blazered administrative flotsam who will comprise perhaps the largest ratio of useless luminaries to competing athletes in the history of the Olympics.
Drifting among these throngs will be a doughty but anonymous collection of Americans, three women and six men in number, brave but downtrodden, dedicated and determined, yet able to entertain no real hope for recognition, no expectation at all for reward. This will be the U.S. Olympic luge team, led by its Polish coach, Piotr Rogowski, 27, and by its Olympic Luge Committee chairman, Fred Hushla, 61, a gentle, rumpled man who is an industrial designer for the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, N.Y. Nowhere in all of Innsbruck's Olympic population will one find a team with a more forlorn history of neglect, disinterest, nonsupport, disenchantment, empty pockets and rotten facilities.
The cream of 1976 American lugers had assembled for the first time early in January in a sub-zero dawn on the side of Mount Van Hoevenberg, just beyond the limits of Lake Placid, that slightly seedy village that hopes to transform itself into a gleaming Winter Olympic capital by 1980. The lugers huddled like pariahs united in adversity at the bobsled-luge run, the only such run in all the U.S. It is not perfect. It is 45 years old and its walls are wooden, bristling here and there with slivers. The run was originally built for bobsledders, who have come to regard lugers as natural enemies; there is a certain aura of hostility in the air whenever lugers bring their sleek little sleds into territory occupied by the thundering big bobs. The Lake Placid run was officially closed to luges until 1973, on the absurd argument that the runners of a luge (which weighs 44 pounds) slashed the track worse than those of the bobs (350- and 700-pound behemoths with many of the characteristics of runaway freight trains). Understandably, lugers also have developed feelings of paranoia whenever bobbers bob up. One luger at Lake Placid summed up the feud by saying, "Bobbers are slobs. I think they hassle us because they're jealous. We are a better class of people in general. I think it probably has something to do with the fact that bobbers are nothing but big fat people who are there just to add weight to the sled. We are true athletes, we're not just blocks of bulk, and they hate us for it."
Whatever the truth of all this, the first thing the lugers had to do before they could begin their Olympic Trials was to shovel snow off the Mount Van Hoevenberg track. Hushla said this was the result of an "austerity program" at the run. Angrier people swore it was because workers at the run were mostly bobsledders and had arranged some kind of featherbedding scheme so the true-athlete lugers had to demean themselves by shoveling snow.
There were about 40 candidates on hand for the Trials, a fact that first made Fred Hushla happy ("This is tremendous! Usually I only have 10!"). Later, he had second thoughts about the number of entries—many of them frighteningly inexperienced—and he made a fatherly little speech in which he said, "Please, we have to do some seeding here, there are so many of you. If you are afraid to go from the top, I would really appreciate it if you would withdraw."