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
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
“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
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
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
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.