The secret to success is secrecy

Luge: On a slippery ethical slope, sliders sneak peeks to gain a technological edge.

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 15, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

PARK CITY, Utah - Pssst. Wanna buy a luge? How about a luge secret?

Though it's not quite intrigue on the James Bond level, lugers love to try to steal each other's edge.

Luges may all look the same, but each slider spends hours in the workshop, tinkering with the runners and suspension system, looking for the tiniest improvement that may win a medal.

Just like America's Cup yacht racing, where keels are shrouded in huge tarps when the boats are raised from the water, so, too, do the athletes try to keep their sleds away from prying eyes and shield their runners with covers. At some races, you can watch the almost-comical dance as enemy coaches do reconnaissance at the starting line and athletes keep turning to obstruct their view.

"There's a kind of luge espionage," says American Brian Martin, who will be racing doubles today with Mark Grimmette. "You never want to leave your sled, because someone will come and sneak a peek."

In a sport timed to one-thousandth of a second - the only one at the Olympics - picking up one-hundredth of a second in each of the curves is "a lot of time," says Martin.

"It's frustrating when you see someone going faster than you on a run that appears to be worse. You figure it has to be the sled," he says.

Five-time Olympic medalist Georg Hackl used to build his own sleds - one a year - but now works with engineers from Porsche. But the final tuneups he still handles himself.

American Gordy Sheer, who won an Olympic silver medal in singles in 1998, says teams make the "big push" in technology in the year leading up to an Olympics and use the World Cup season to fiddle with the equipment.

"Even two weeks before the Olympics, we're still experimenting with different things," he says.

While coaches try to scope out the technology at the starting gate, teams tape each other's runs, hoping to unlock the recipe for speed.

Right now, everyone is abuzz about the suspension system used by the Germans. The theory is they've found a way to dampen the bumps to keep the sled from dancing as it runs at 85 mph down the mile-long ice chute.

"We've got to figure out what they've got and how to do something similar," says Martin, who calls the American's efforts "top secret."

So far, they haven't. Hackl finished second in the men's singles race, and then helped prepare the sleds of the German women, who swept their event Wednesday. Americans Adam Heidt finished fourth and Becky Wilczak fifth.

"I believe there's really something there," says American singles luger Tony Benshoof. "It doesn't take much to give you an edge."

There isn't a written code of conduct in the espionage game, but some sliders have their ethical limit.

"I wouldn't take the covers off and fondle [the runners], but if I happened upon it and it was uncovered, I think I'd check it out," Martin says.

The athletes are always adjusting the 3-foot-long runners, filing and sharpening the edges, to compensate for weather and track conditions.

During the majority of the 45-second runs, only about half the runner is in contact with the track, and that contact patch keeps moving up and down, depending on whether the runner is on a straightaway or curve.

"It has to be smooth enough not to cut the ice, but with enough of an edge to keep control. It's an art to be able to understand it," Sheer says. "So these guys will casually lean up against the sled and feel the edge."

Intrigue goes beyond the equipment. In 1998, Hackl caused an uproar when he showed up at the games in Nagano, Japan, with gold booties made by Adidas that kept his toes pointed in the most aerodynamic way.

Other teams protested because the rules say the same equipment must be available to all athletes and Adidas said it had run out of material after making Hackl's booties.

The protest was disallowed, something Benshoof still finds disturbing.

"The booties helped; that's almost undeniable," he says. "Having a piece of equipment others don't have is basically cheating, but it's a bit of a head game as well."

So far, spying hasn't escalated to the point of an international incident, but athletes say it is growing.

"Two years ago, I would have said there are no secrets, but we all pretended that we had secrets to make people think this is why we're going fast," says Martin. "Now, I think there are some secrets out there, and people are trying everything to figure out what makes other people go faster."

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