Lake Placid, N.Y. — Perhaps the eeriest and least-understood Olympic sport is the luge. The mysterious sledders, wearing helmet and rubber suit, give the sport a strange aura as they cope with as many Gs as a fighter pilot.
Only one country in the world, East Germany, seems to have made a science out of riding the small sleds down the icy serpentine chutes. Of the 36 Olympic luge medals awarded since the sport was added to the Winter Games in 1964, 20 have gone to the East Germans.
Americans find it hard to relate to a sport in which they have historically done so poorly -- 13th place in 1964 being the best US Olympic finish on record.
But what can one expect from an American squad that had only 10 days of serious training together prior to the 1976 games in Innsbruk?
"Can you imagine going off a ski jump with so little practice?" asks Piotr Rigowski, the team's Polish-born coach. The implicit answer to Rigowski's question, of course, is an emphatic "no."
Luge, after all, has been called the most dangerous sport in the Olympics by some observers, a rather dubious distinction considering the presence of bobsledding, downhill skiing, and ski jumping on the Olympic agenda.
The hair-raising nature of luging (pronounced loosh-ing) is evident to anyone who's seen a sled climb the wall of a hairpin turn at speeds up to 70 m.p.h.
Unlike bobsledders, who sit tucked in behind a hoodlike sled front, lugers ride on their backs, their eyes peering ahead over outstretched toes.
Since a luge cannot have any mechanical steering device its rider must guide it with his or her body. This is primarily accomplished by using one's legs and shoulders to flex the sled ever so carefully.
Spectators can't really detect it as the sleds flash by, but there is an art to a successful and safe run.
while lugers assume a fair amount of risk, US team member Jeff Tucker assures you that his sport is no hang-on-for- dear-life affair.
"I don't think the sport is crazy at all," he says. "It's fast, but very, very precise. You know exactly what line to drive, and you should be within 3 or 4 inches of it.
"Maybe the best analogy is to a Formula One race car driver who shifts gears in corners exactly the same way over and over. Both sports require a lot of mental control and finesse."
The slightest error can send one ping-ponging off the walls or skidding into a corner.
The poise needed to pull out of these difficulties requires split-second decisionmaking, the kind that comes more naturally the more one experiences the sport's lightning speeds.
Tucker admits the adjustment is difficult to make initially. "About the first 20 runs of the year always seem terrifyingly fast," he says. "After 100 or 200 runs it still seems like you're going fast, but not blindingly fast. You're just too busy thinking to be aware of the speed."
Debbie Genovese, a dental assistant whose husband got her intersted in the sport four years ago, indicates there's no room for second-guessing yourself. "You've got to be concentrating on what you're going to do," she says, "and not worrying about the mistake you might have made several seconds ago."
The best strategy, she says, is to look 30 or 40 feet down the track, using tunnel vision to shut out the potentially distracting blur of spectators, trees, et cetera.
When the luger really gets a sense of oneness with the track it is at night, when the lit course snakes eerily through the darkness. "It's just you and the track at night," Tucker observes. "There's no peripheral input at all."
Some enjoy nighttime luging better than others, but every luge entrant, whether in singles or doubles, must make one of four runs at night -- a test of the athlete's total mastery.
Lake Placid's new 1,000 meter Mt. Hoevenberg course is a beauty. The first refrigerated luge track in the Western hemisphere, it was built at a cost of $4. 5 million adjacent to the Olympic bobsled run.
The antecedent of the new bob run here, a wooden-walled track, was the only real training ground for US lugers before the Lake Placid Olympic building program was completed.
Essentially this new facility has allowed the US lugers their first serious pre-Olympic training. Even then, it has been relatively brief, yet enough so that Jim Murray, the team's manager, hopes for a finish in the top 10 or 20 percent in every event (men's singles and doubles, plus women's singles).
In just a year the Americans have sliced their times by several seconds and now are within a second or two of the East Germans.
The underfinanced US luge program has had to resort to some rather bizarre training practices. For months, a dozen or so lugers did dry-land training in New York's Central Park. When not shooed away by the police, they reached speeds up to 35 m.p.h. rolling toward Harlem in their early morning workouts.
"We're really selling the sport short in this country," Murray says. "After all, look at how many youngsters have sledded, and luging grew out of tobogganing. What we should be saying to these kids is: 'You too can take a Flexible Flyer and go to the Olympics.'"