`Sausage' is plump, slow, but a master

Luger Hackl sets sights on fourth straight gold

Winter Olympics Salt Lake City 2002

February 10, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

PARK CITY, Utah - He's tubby and slow, but what do you expect from a man dubbed "the racing white sausage."

German luger Georg Hackl is a golden oldie, laughing all the way to the top of the podium the past three Olympics. Today and tomorrow, he's looking to make one more trip and become the first winter athlete to win gold four consecutive times.

Only U.S. discus thrower Al Oerter has accomplished the feat.

Hackl is successful because he can't leave success alone.

He's a self-taught track technician who used to build his own sleds, but is now using one designed by Porsche.

Although he hasn't won an overall World Cup title since 1990, he always rises to the occasion for the Olympics.

"Georg's a guy who will throw away everything in a World Cup competition to test equipment in a race situation," said former U.S. luger Gordon Sheer, winner of the silver medal in 1998 in Nagano.

"He'll do one run on a proven setup and one run on an experimental sled. Don't look at the results. He might just be playing with the equipment."

Another factor that works in Hackl's favor is the Olympic format, said former U.S. luger Cameron Myler. World Cup events are two races while the Olympics is four runs over two days.

"Hackl is consistent. He knows how to drive and his times don't vary much from one run to another," she said.

Then there are his luge roots. Hackl learned to slide on the famed World Cup track at Konigssee, four miles from his home in Berchtesgaden, a Bavarian resort town. He took up luge in school to avoid the more strenuous sports of volleyball and skiing.

He first reached the Calgary Olympics in 1988 at the age of 21, and won a silver medal after he was able to adjust his sled to warming conditions when others could not.

Four years later in Albertville, Hackl's tinkering in changing weather conditions paid off when he squeaked past Austria's Markus Prock to win the gold. The hits kept on coming in Lillehammer and Nagano.

Now, at 35, soft in the center and scarred by back surgery to repair discs, he will once more do what he does best: start like a turtle, drive like a fox.

"Every year he gets a little slower, but he's cunning" said U.S. luger Tony Benshoof, the fastest man in the world on a sled, who will face Hackl tomorrow. "He makes up by having perfect runs."

He also isn't above a little chicanery and head games, either.

In 1998, he was at the center of what was called "Bootiegate," wearing specially constructed, aerodynamic booties that none of the racers from other countries had.

A protest was lodged based on the luge rule that disallows any equipment not easily available to other athletes.

But the complaint was dismissed when the bootie maker, adidas, said it had simply run out of material.

While the gold-colored booties probably gave Hackl an edge of a few hundredths of a second, it probably wouldn't have mattered. "He could win in flip-flops," said an American luge official at the time.

Hackl may have to look over his shoulder, however. Prock, his shadow at the last four Olympics, will be back at age 37 for one more ride. Then there's Armin Zoeggeler of Italy, who took the World Cup season title and won the world championship in 2000.

The Americans are led by Benshoof, who tore down the Olympic Oval in Park City last year at 86.6 mph and won his first career World Cup medal - a silver - last month in Winterberg, Germany. Teammate Adam Heidt has Olympic experience from the 1998 games. Nick Sullivan completes the team.

The final two runs of competition will come tomorrow.

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