German Loch wins Olympic luge gold

For a welcome moment, grief gave way to gold in luge.

Germany’s Felix Loch, speeding safely through the final curve

where a fellow Olympian tragically died just two days earlier, won

a gold medal on Sunday and brought brief but needed comfort to a

sport rocked by criticism that it put performance above protection

of its athletes.

Loch finished his four heats in 3 minutes, 13.085 seconds, well

ahead of teammate David Moeller (3:13.764) and Italy’s Armin

Zoeggeler (3:14.375), the two-time defending Olympic champion.

Officials, under pressure after 21-year-old Georgian slider

Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a practice crash Friday,

shortened the track by moving the starts down the mountain. The

alteration worked to slow the sleds, but the changes may have

tilted the balance of competition.

American Tony Benshoof, who finished eighth, understood the

reasoning behind moving the start and respected the decision, but

that didn’t mean he liked it.

“If we had started from the top, the race would have been

totally different,” he said. “As soon as they moved the start

down, they basically gave two medals to the Germans.”

Kumaritashvili died after being thrown from his sled at nearly

90 mph and catapulted into an exposed steel beam. The spot is now

marked as a memorial with candles and flowers.

His shocking death, just hours before the cauldron was ignited

in Vancouver, rattled many of his competitors – and the entire

Olympic family – and forced luge officials to consider the

unthinkable possibility of canceling the competition. Instead, they

decided the games would go on, but only after altering the course

so there would be no repeat of the harrowing accident on this

beautiful mountaintop.

For Loch, who has trained in BMW’s wind tunnels, it didn’t

matter where he started.

He was fastest, by far.

Born in Koenigssee, his country’s sliding capital, the

20-year-old returned Germany to luge’s summit by dethroning

Zoeggeler, who was attempting to match German luging legend Georg

Hackl’s record of winning gold in three straight Olympic games.

It’s a mark that Loch, the new German wunderkind, may one day

surpass.

“It’s going to be tough to knock that guy off,” Canada’s Ian

Cockerline said. “If he can maintain this, he could be on top for

a long time.”

Loch, already a two-time world champion, is the youngest luge

Olympic gold medalist in history. Fellow German Dettlef Gunther was

21 when he won gold at the Innsbruck Games in 1976. Hackl, now a

coach on the German team, won his first as a 25-year-old at the

1992 Albertville Games.

Of the 13 golds awarded in Olympic luge, nine have gone to

Germans.

American Tony Benshoof, sliding with three herniated discs in

his third and final Olympics, finished eighth. The native of St.

Paul, Minn. was fourth at Turin in 2006, missing a medal by less

than one-fifth of a second. The U.S. has never won an Olympic medal

in singles luge.

Kumaritashvili’s death brought scrutiny to a sport that has

craved the spotlight, but has mostly been ignored outside the

Olympic rings. The tragedy also renewed concerns that the Whistler

Sliding Center track, a $110 million, 16-turn sliding superspeedway

designed for these games, was excessively fast for all but the top

lugers.

There was heated debate. Then, there was death.

Following two investigations, officials moved the men’s start

down nearly three curves to the women’s start and trimmed 600 feet

off a track built for record speed. Previously, the men had pushed

off down a steep incline, allowing them to reach 60 mph by turn 3,

known as “The Wedge.”

The alterations served their purpose and significantly slowed

the racers, who were routinely clocked at nearly 95 mph during

training runs (Loch topped out at 91.6 mph in Saturday’s first

heat). But the changes also made the lightning-fast track far

easier and lessened the possibility that one of the elite drivers

would make a mistake and allow someone from the back of the field

to move up and swipe a medal.

But from the start, Loch was in a class by himself. He posted

the fastest times in all four runs, taming a track that had a

terrifying reputation long before Friday’s crash. He had been

bitten by the Whistler beast before. During an international

training week in 2008, Loch crashed and tore ligaments in both

shoulders, an injury that caused him to miss three World Cup

events.

He began the day leading Moeller by two-tenths of a second. He

more than doubled it after his third run and readied for his

gold-medal descent more than one second ahead of Zoeggeler, the

nine-time World Cup champ who has hinted at retirement.

As he completed the final, sweeping right turn out of curve 16,

Loch passed the steel support pole that ended Kumaritshavili’s

life. The girder is now covered by a wooden wall, constructed

before the track reopened Saturday.

It’s now a memorial and a monument to a luger who never got his

chance to race.