In Games of old, there's everything to luge

JOHN EISENBERG

February 13, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

LA PLAGNE, France -- Awake at dawn to catch a bus to the outer banks of the Olympics: the women's luge finals, located 6,000 feet up the mountain in a tree-lined burg so small you can shout from one end to the other.

"But bus must wait," the driver says, sipping coffee. "Avalanche ahead."

Ah.

"Rocks and snow on the road. Many rocks and snow."

Ah. Of course. Happens all the time in Bawlmer, hon.

Twenty minutes later we're off, the bus going up, up, up on a switchback road without guardrails. (Memo to self: Don't look down.) Ninety minutes with one slowdown for avalanche rubbernecking.

Finally: dropped at an icy crossroads below town. The driver waves, disappears, and there you are: no people around, no sound, nothing moving anywhere. Just the wind in your ears and the slush in your boots.

But then civilization reaches down to reclaim you, a mini-bus shuttle to the top of town. The luge course sits high above, on a hill, shining. In the press room are a couple of reporters spending their Olympics up here.

"No phone in the hotel room, and just a couple of restaurants that close early," sums a man from Los Angeles. "No light in the room, either. Just a string of red Christmas lights running along the wall."

Ah.

"We're way, way up here, baby," he says.

But a funny thing: Outside it's how theWinter Olympics used to be, back when you could touch them, hold them, before television pumped them up with money and man-made snow.

Maybe a thousand people are spread across the hill in the grainy morning light. An accordion player puts out polkas. A mime makes balloon animals for kids. An old man sells roasted chestnuts in little brown bags.

It is the only corner of the Olympics where you see squadrons of kindergarten kids, liberated from school for a day, running around in purple and pink parkas with big white stocking caps on their little heads.

But then of course the kids are here. This is their event: sleds in the snow. The essence of the Winter Olympics. Maybe the frilly figure skating is more popular. Maybe the hockey has that major-league undercurrent. Maybe the skiing is surrounded by all that glitter and money. But sleds in the snow are the Winter Olympics cut to the soul.

And what a sight it is. Television doesn't begin to do justice to the startling experience that is luge.

You stand together with a dozen people by a banked, refrigerated turn 15 feet high. There is silence. The track is right there in front of you. You can kick it. Touch it. It is cold. You can rub it. No one cares.

Then you hear a rumble, at first no different from distant thunder, then louder and louder and finally right-on-your-head-wham! You lean over the edge to see and the sled comes around the turn traveling as fast as the cars in the fast lane on I-95. The volume rattles your backbone.

There is a woman in the sled, yes, but she rides past so quickly that all you get are fragments of a snapshot before she is gone. Her eyes, bugged out and desperate behind yellow goggles. Her teeth, bared from the force and riding high against her upper lip.

You could reach out and give her a high-five, but you wouldn't get your arm back.

No one high-fives anyway. The customers aren't here to cheer. They're different. Only two or three have flags. None stand down at

the finish line. It's a sensory gig, everyone guilty of being here just to be a speed freak for a minute, wanting nothing other than to stand by a monster turn and have a sled batter your senses.

The noise. The speed. We all have the same reaction. Step back. Smile. Laugh. Whew. Did you see that sucker?

Two heats and the race is over, Austrian sisters winning the gold and silver medals. Cammy Myler finishes fifth -- highest ever by an American in the Olympics. But then there is Bonny Warner, the 29-year-old father and mother of American luge.

"I just retired," she says, coming down the hill to talk to reporters.

She has a circle of blond hair around her face and a set of big front teeth and such an upbeat, bouncy manner that you figure she might just lift off and float away. She just finished 18th in her third Olympics.

"I was up there in the starter's shed, and it was my last time down a hill, and you know, suddenly I couldn't stop crying," she says, and suddenly she's crying again, just blubbering, and her mother is standing there and starts crying, too.

Crying right there on the side of this mountain with a bunch of French kindergarten kids looking up at her.

But then she is OK. Gathered up again and talking about the last 12 years in the sport, seven days a week, seven months a year.

The Olympics aren't going be about athletes like her anymore, ones who live on somebody's floor and practice in a parking lot and sell apple pies to pay for new blade runners. Now it's about sponsors, endorsements, about not having to work so you can spend the year training in Europe.

On a sled in the snow.

Warner finishes and leaves with her mother, and suddenly the hill is empty, silent except for the sound of reporters' boots in the slush. Up here at the top of the Olympics, where there are kids and mimes, where you can touch the Games and look down at a valley full of snow.

"We better go look for a bus back down there," someone says. "They say it's hell getting out of here."

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