Most of us love watching the Olympics to see the greatest athletes do things we could never dream of doing. From landing a graceful quadruple axel in figure skating to blazing through a slalom at record-breaking speeds, it’s inspiring and awe-inducing to tune in every few years and catch humans doing the seemingly impossible physical feats.
Perhaps no winter sport better exemplifies the guts, intensity, and skill that Olympic athletes possess than the luge. This blazing-fast race may look simple, but requires extreme precision, focus, and strategy, making it extremely exciting to watch. To maximize your appreciation of the Winter Olympics for your watching experience this year, keep reading for our guide to the luge and get to know everything that goes into this unique sport.
Luge is a winter sport that involves racing on special sleds down a banked ice track. Athletes lie supine, or on their backs, with their feet leading down the track. The roots of luge are thought to date back as far as the year 800 with the Vikings competing in sled races on the mountains along the fjords near present-day Oslo. The first confirmed model-day luge competition was in Switzerland in 1183, and luge became an Olympic event at the 1964 Olympic Games. Luge athletes from Germany tend to dominate the podium at the Winter Olympics, with athletes from Italy and Austria often making a good showing as well.
There are currently four events in the Olympic luge: Men’s Singles, Women’s Singles, Doubles, and the Team Relay, which was added in 2014.
The competition format for the men’s and women’s luge singles at the Olympics is unique to the Olympic Games as a way for athletes to demonstrate superior endurance, consistency, and precision under pressure. Each athlete takes four runs of the course — two one day, and two a second day — whereas non-Olympic singles luge events are just two runs on one day. The total time for all four runs is tallied and the winner is the luge athlete with the fastest total time.
- Track: The same track is used for both men and women, but the women have a shorter run because they start farther down the course. For example, in Beijing, the Olympic Sliding Center luge course is approximately 0.84 miles (1,344m) for men and 0.75 miles (1,201m) for women and doubles events.
- Start Order: Rankings from the three previous World Cup races are used to determine the start order for the first two runs of the Singles races, while the results of the first two runs are used to determine the start order for runs three and four. For example, for the third run, the start order is first to last whereas it’s last to first for the fourth run. Only one luge athlete is permitted to be on the track at one time, and they are given 30 seconds to start their run once the “track is clear” signal is given.
- Finishing: In luge, race times are recorded to the thousandth of a second. Ties are permitted. The athlete must be in contact with the sled when they cross the finish line for a valid run. The luge athlete may not push, paddle, or walk with the sled, or they are disqualified. However, if they crash and still finish on the sled — even if they received assistance mid-course — the run is valid.
The Doubles luge is an event that occurs over a single day. Pairs of athletes take two runs down the course, with the winning team determined by the fastest finishing time. Although there are no gender rules, most Doubles luge races consist of teams of two men with the heavier athlete positioned atop the lighter teammate.
- Track: Doubles luge uses the same course and track as Women’s Singles. In Beijing, the Olympic Sliding Center luge course for Doubles is approximately 0.75 miles (1201m).
- Start Order: Doubles luge is grouped into three starting groups with the groupings and starting order based on World Cup rankings from the last three races. Countries may only enter a maximum of two Doubles luge teams. The starting order for the second run is based on the reverse finishing order from the race times for the first run (slowest to fastest). As with Singles, only one sled is permitted on the course at once, but instead of 30 seconds to start once the “track is cleared” signal is given, the Doubles luge team has 45 seconds to start.
- Finishing: Again, both athletes must be in contact with the sled and may not push, paddle, or walk with the sled.
The team relay luge event debuted at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Luge teams consist of three sleds: one woman, one man, and one doubles. All three sleds start directly after one another, leading off with women, then men, then doubles. The first sled, women, leads off with the start gate open as with any other race. When the athlete finishes, she must hit a touchpad, which then triggers the start gate to open for the next sled (men). He then follows the same procedure to queue the last (doubles) sled to start. The time continues running from the start of the first sled through the finish of the third sled with no pauses, even between athletes. The top athlete of the doubles sled must hit the touch button to end the race time.
- Track: The team relay uses the same start position on the track as the Women’s Singles and Doubles.
- Start Order: The ranking of the nations in reverse order dictates the start order for the team relay. When there are ties in the rankings, the race ranking from doubles is used for those teams.
- Finishing: A team is disqualified if any of the athletes fail to hit the touchpad or finish without their sled.
The sled used for luge must be of a certain weight to be legal. For singles, the sled must weigh between 21-25kg (46.3-55.1 pounds), while for doubles, a doubles sled must weigh between 25-30kg (55.1-66.1 pounds). There are also specific dimension requirements. Luge sleds do not have brakes.
Luge officials compare the temperature of the steel runners on the athlete’s sled to a “control” sled to verify the runners have not been heated (which would reduce friction and make the sled go faster).
There are no maximum weight allowances for luge events, but athletes under certain weights can add additional weights to a certain limit, depending on the race.
Luge is still an Olympic sport. There will be four luge events at the 2022 Beijing Games. For each event, countries may enter a maximum of three men, three women, two doubles teams, and one relay team.
Luge athletes travel at incredibly high speeds. The top speeds are usually around 140 km/hr, with the record speed of 154 km/hr (96 mph) clocked by Austrian Manuel Pfister in Whistler, Canada, leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Most luge tracks drop an average of 30 stories (300 feet).
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