Like Lake Placid run, Turin's path tortuous

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- At one point in its infancy, the luge track in this most Olympic of U.S. towns was dubbed a death trap by the sport's best athlete.

Georg Hackl, a five-time Winter Games medalist, packed his sled and went home to Germany, refusing to take part in the 2000 Goodwill Games. Others, including a two-time silver medalist and a world champion, agreed and also pulled out.

The same concerns were raised last February during a test event at Turin's newly finished luge run after 14 athletes crashed and nine of them required hospitalization. Organizers aborted the competition rather than risk further injuries.

The international federation called the track "technically demanding."

Italian officials, stung by criticism, were more blunt. Marco Andreata, technical director of the Italian luge team, told reporters the crashes were the result of "mistakes by second-rank athletes."

The athletes injured were from Brazil, the Virgin Islands, Romania and Latvia - countries not thought of as powerhouses.

But other sliders, including Germany's David Moeller, called conditions unsafe.

That, plus the thought of athletes being carted off to a hospital before a television audience of millions prompted changes.

There are some parallels between the Turin track and Lake Placid's. The Lake Placid track was finished in nine months - record time, according to the International Luge Federation. It had few test runs and was not yet certified when the Goodwill Games began.

Three sliders crashed on the first run and two more flew off their sleds on the second run on the mile-long track that descends more than 40 stories through 20 curves.

Although luge and track officials similarly dismissed the criticisms, they made several changes in the $24 million chute, especially near the top. The track was certified in 2001 and has been part of the World Cup circuit every year since.

The Turin organizers have agreed to tame curves 16, 17 and 18 near the bottom of their track, where speeds are the highest.

Team coaches have photographed and videotaped every inch of the track and its 20 curves (19 for the women and doubles).

The lack of experience on the Turin track should give a boost - even if it's only psychological - to every female slider with dreams of finally ending the German juggernaut.

"That's one of the most exciting things about this track for the Olympics," Regan Lauscher, a Canadian slider, told the Calgary Herald. "No one can claim it yet. No one's won on it. Nothing. Everyone's had less than a dozen runs on it. It's anyone's game. It's going to be who attacks it, who's aggressive, who goes out there and wants it."

There is an opportunity for one other similarity between the Italian track and the one in New York.

In 2000, after Hackl and others went home, Armin Zoeggeler won the gold, a feat he repeated at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

This month, on his home track, the man in the silver helmet knicknamed "Ziggy" is favored to do it again.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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