NAGANO, Japan — Howard Cosell, who was never a fan of the Winter Olympics, saved some of his most biting insults for the luge. According to legend, he once watched a colleague broadcasting the event and was prompted to snort — in his nasal, staccato delivery — “Look at him …he used to be a giant in the business
…now he watches the little sleds go down the hill . . .”
I was watching the little sleds go down the hill Monday. And I have to admit, the only thing that would have made me feel the least bit confident that anyone back home cared would have been if an American won a medal. Any medal.
It has never happened in luge. Not in singles. Not in doubles. Not in men. Not in women. No golds. No silvers. No bronzes. The closest we Yanks ever came was when they let a luge guy carry the flag in the opening ceremonies.
But that was supposed to change this year. Americans have slowly dragged their sleds up the glory mountain. In the last few winters, they’ve won World Cup races and world championship titles. They’ve captured plaques and trophies and prizes. Other nations even stopped laughing when the red, white and blue truck came up the hill.
And this year, finally, the last piece of hardware, the Olympic medal, was ready to fall …
And then came the booty.
“The Germans are using booties we don’t have!” a luge official complained at the halfway point of the men’s singles, which was being won — not coincidentally — by a German. “It’s illegal. They can’t have equipment we don’t have! We’ve filed a protest!”
“Theirs is made of special material! It’s aerodynamic! It cuts down on wind resistance! It could be worth a tenth-of-a-second over four runs! It’s like
…a super booty!”
A super booty?
Maybe Cosell was right.
Life with the lugers
Now, I confess a personal fondness for luge. It was the first thing I covered as a freelance sports writer, back in the early ’80s. And once, on assignment for a magazine, I wound up living with the U.S. luge team for a month in Europe.
By “living” I mean I slept on the motel room floor between the coach and the manager. That’s what American luge was back then. You paid your own way. You carried your own sled. You took turns driving the van, ate candy bars for dinner at highway rest stops, and during competitions, when your speed suit ripped, you fixed it with duct tape, just as you had the last five times.
In those days, our lugers moaned about the disparity between their technology and that of the world luge leaders, the East Germans, the Austrians and the Italians.
“If only we had sponsors like they do,” our guys said. “If only we had equipment guys like they do. If only we had more duct tape . . .”
Well, we have all that now. We have sponsors. We have equipment guys. We even have duct tape.
Alas, it turns out, we don’t have the right booties.
In the words of Roseanne Roseannadanna, “It’s alllllways somethin’!”
And so, when the track cleared Monday, our best hope ever for an Olympic medal, Wendel Suckow, an Eagle Scout out of Marquette who has a world championship in his satchel and plenty of Olympic experience, still finished no higher than sixth, which is worse than four years ago in Lillehammer, when he was fifth.
Meanwhile, the guy who won the 1994 gold, and the 1992 gold, Georg Hackl, a German, won this year’s gold as well. And right behind him? An Italian, another German, and two Austrians.
The more things change …
The slimmest of margins
Now, remember that in luge, you can miss a medal by a thousandth of a second. A thousandth of a second. There is no way to measure that. There is no correction you can point to. Which may be why Suckow stood at the bottom of the track Monday, on the verge of retirement, and still said, “I had good runs today. Great runs. I can’t think of anything that went wrong.”
And he finished sixth. This is the problem with a sport so maddeningly close it checks the temperature of the sled runners to see whether they’re a degree too warm, and checks the weight of the sled and slider to see whether they’re an ounce too heavy, and has technical wars over things like double-secret aerodynamic booties.
By the way, it turns out these booties are made by Adidas, which, a U.S. official quickly reminded me, is “a German company.” And so, when the Americans found out about Hackl’s booties and asked for similar ones just a few weeks ago, Adidas told them, “We don’t have any more material. Sorry.”
Why, of all the nerve! After all our NBA guys have done for them?
Ah, well. The little sleds still come down the hill. And theirs are, for the moment, still faster than ours. You can blame the equipment. Or you can go with the more likely explanation that winning an Olympic medal is still harder than winning any other kind of medal, and guys who have done it before — like Hackl, now a three-time gold medalist — have a natural edge over guys who are still trying to get there.
“Let’s face it,” said one luge insider, “Hackl’s so good at big events, he was going to win if he were wearing flip-flops.”
Or, to put it another way, sometimes it’s the make of your booty, and sometimes it’s how you shake it.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.