4 Racers, 3 Sleds and One Tricky Touchpad

By Borden, Sam | International New York Times, February 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

4 Racers, 3 Sleds and One Tricky Touchpad


Borden, Sam, International New York Times


The luge relay was contested at an Olympics for the first time, challenging supine athletes to pop up and smack a pad to open the gates for their teammates.

It is the Winter Games equivalent of a dropped baton, the sort of Olympic nightmare that haunts lugers as they lie on their sleds and that wakes them as they lie in their beds.

Most of the time, sliders have it relatively easy at the bottom of the track: They complete their runs just by crossing a finish line. On Thursday, however, when the luge team relay was contested at the Olympics for the first time, these athletes, who spend most of their professional lives on their backs, had to pop up to smack a circular pad that dangled above them like a droopy balloon.

Only after they made contact with the pad could the next riders on the team begin the trip down from the start. And if they missed - - as has happened on more than one occasion in other international competitions -- the penalty was severe: disqualification.

"I definitely get stressed about it," said Erin Hamlin, the American luger who led off for the United States team.

"I haven't missed yet," she added, then looked around nervously. "Knock on wood."

As it turned out, the Olympic debut of the luge team relay was free of disaster. One rider on the Polish team just barely got her fingertips on the pad, but that was the closest anyone came to a miss. Tobias Wendl, the top driver on Germany's doubles team, nearly sent the pad flying with his authoritative one-handed punch, and the Germans completed their sweep of all four luge events with a dominating performance in the relay.

Russia won the silver medal, and Latvia claimed the bronze in front of a boisterous crowd at the Sanki Sliding Center, with many of the fans seeming to revel in the novelty of a new event.

Most of the athletes, too, enjoyed the camaraderie of a rare chance to compete together, though that teamwork also led to some different emotions, as they are used to working alone.

"We just all feel like we let each other down," Alex Gough of Canada said after she and her teammates finished in fourth place, only one-tenth of a second away from a medal.

Although this was the first time that the team relay was contested at an Olympics, it was not completely new. Team events have been parts of international competitions for decades, though it was not until 2008 that luge officials introduced the time-pad element (in the past, team events just involved combining the times of each team's three sleds). …

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