The smiling figure at left, his shoulders draped with a strange-looking object of wood and steel, is Fritz Nachmann of Rottach-Egern, Bavaria, world champion in the newest and least-known Olympic event. The sport is luging, and the contraption on Nachmann's shoulders is a luge (rhymes with huge), which he hopes to ride to a gold medal in Innsbruck.
A luge is what small European children (and some adults) ride down snowy hills on. In the U.S. it is called a sled. A European luge, like an American sled, is not much more than a wooden plank set on two iron runners, but when it is pointed down the side of an Alp it is not a toy for small children. Luges can travel almost 90 miles an hour, and to guide one through a treacherous sequence of hairpins and S curves requires supreme coordination, split-second reactions and plain old guts.
The origin of luging is lost in antiquity, but it probably began in the forests of the Tyrol, Bavaria and Bohemia as a means of testing the bravado of woodcutters. They used pathways cut through the deep snow by the traffic of sleds loaded with heavy trees. The first recorded luge race took place in 1823 in the Sudeten area, but it was not until more than 100 years later that the first world championship was held, and not until this year that luging was included in the Olympic program. According to Richard Hartmann, curator of luging for the German Bob and Sled Association, the reason that it took so long for luging to be accepted by the Olympic Games was the sport's basic lack of pretension. Says Hartmann: "A good two-man bobsled costs up to $2,000. The best luge shouldn't cost more than $55. For years it seemed as if the Olympic committee simply considered luging too square to admit it to the Games. But at last the enthusiasm of our promoters became contagious and we were accepted."
Many former bob enthusiasts have switched to the luge. One such person is Hans Plenk, a 25-year-old tile setter from K�nigsee who took second behind Nachmann in last year's world championship race in Imst, Austria. He says: "One might begin by comparing it with the difference between driving a Ferrari and driving a Go Kart. But, while the Ferrari goes about four times as fast as the Go Kart, a luge actually can go faster than a bob. On the Krynica course in Poland two years ago, a luge was clocked at 135 kilometers, almost 85 miles an hour. And the average speed on our own K�nigsee run amounts to 100 kilometers, or 60 miles an hour."
A luge course may run from 1,000 to 2,000 meters. A good course should include one left turn, one right, a hairpin, an S curve, a labyrinth and a lickity-split straightaway. The course is constructed like a chute, a baby bob run. The starting line is generally on a sharp decline, so, to begin, the competitors need only climb aboard and push off. Once under way, the luge is ridden in a position that is halfway between sitting up and lying flat on one's back, all the time hanging on to a leather strap. The rider guides the flying sled with no more than body English and a slight pressure exerted on the runners either with his feet or the leather thong. The only braking possible is done with iron grates attached to the boots.
A luge must not weigh more than 44 pounds or have runners more than 48 centimeters (1� feet) apart. No specific materials are prescribed for its construction, but the Austrians are rumored to have at least two plastic luges which, they hope, will prove more resilient and flexible than the wooden luges now used. Since weight increases speed, careful checks are made of participants to guard against an increase of poundage by nefarious means, such as sewing lead pellets into pants and pullovers. Crash helmets are obligatory, as are aluminum caps to protect elbows and knees.
In Innsbruck, where the course is 1,063.76 meters long, there will be three luge events, men's singles and doubles and ladies' singles. In singles, each driver makes four runs down the course, one of them at night when the low temperatures make the track faster. In doubles, the drivers (the front man steers) make two runs, one at night. In both cases the winner is the luge with the best combined time.
There are no courses in the U.S.—in fact, there are only two sleds in the whole country—and for that reason the U.S. team, which has been doing its training in Poland, probably will win no medals. Fritz Nachmann, who has been racing and training since 1950 on the excellent courses in Garmisch and K�nigsee, is the probable gold medal winner in the men's singles, but as of last week he had not been entered on a two-man sled. He considers the Poles, East Germans and Austrians his most dangerous rivals. "But," Nachmann says, "it is a difficult sport to predict. It requires vigorous conditioning—weight lifting, gymnastics. But perhaps most important of all, you need peace of mind."