Lugers come up short in practice runs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CESANA, Italy -- If practice makes perfect, the world's luge athletes are missing out.

The international luge federation requires that all athletes have 35 training runs on the Olympic track before competition begins.

But because of safety and refrigeration problems and construction delays, many athletes, except for the those on the hometown team, have had far fewer runs than mandated.

"It's a sportsmanship issue," said Ron Rossi, executive director of USA Luge. "It's not a small thing. It's a significant number of runs."

By the time the men's competition begins Saturday, only top U.S. slider Tony Benshoof, with 33 runs, will come close to the goal.

The gap is much bigger with some of the less-experienced U.S. athletes. Jonathan Myles will have logged about 25 runs. The two newcomers, Samantha Retrosi and Erin Hamlin, will have had 15 each. Christian Niccum's experience is just six runs, with one of those ending in a crash that required hospital treatment.

By contrast, Armin Zoeggeler, the 2002 gold medalist from Italy, will have had well over 100 runs.

"Every country has time to train at the track, but it is special for the Italians," said Albert Demtschenko, the Russian slider considered one of the top five, who has had about as many runs as Benshoof.

The extra training has paid off this week, with Italians breaking the track record 10 times during practice runs.

It is normal for the home team to have the advantage. By the time the competition at Salt Lake City began four years ago, U.S. athletes had the same cushion of experience that Zoeggeler enjoys now.

But U.S. Olympic officials became concerned after 14 athletes from several nations crashed and nine required hospitalization during training last February for the Italian track's first World Cup. Organizers aborted the competition rather than risk further injuries, and rushed to fix two curves to make them less dangerous.

Jim McCarthy, the U.S. chef de mission, wrote to Turin organizers last November to request more training time on the revamped track. He called the situation "unacceptable" and a "serious safety concern."

But both the organizers and the international federation (FIL) brushed aside his concerns.

In a letter praising Turin officials, FIL president Josef Fendt gave his own organization a pat on the back: "There is no other international winter sport federation which offers as many training runs prior to the Olympic Winter Games."

Rossi remains unsatisfied.

"The FIL sold out its athletes," he said. "On a track that everyone knows, 10 extra runs doesn't mean a lot. But on a track that's brand new and has had some problems, it's significant. It's not sour grapes. It's sour grapes if we bring it up afterward."

For their part, the U.S. athletes are trying to maintain their focus on competition and let team officials handle problems.

"For the most part, I have a pretty good feel for the track and I'm pretty confident in my abilities here," said Benshoof. "Certainly, we would have liked to have more time on this track to prepare, but we got what we got and we'll have to make the best of it."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

2006 Games

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Opening ceremony: Tomorrow

Closing ceremony: Feb. 26

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