Luge: popular in Europe, slow to catch on in U.S.

This column continues the Only One series in which this reporter shares his experiences as the only African American journalist on the scene.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, scheduled to take place February 9-25, will include an event called luge. Luge, or sled racing, first took place in 1883 as 21 participants from six countries including the U.S. competed in an international event. It typically involves one or two people on a tiny little sled going down an icy track at breakneck speeds.

It became an Olympic sport in 1964 and has four events: men’s singles, women’s singles, doubles, and team relay. The USA luge team is vying for its first Olympic gold medal in South Korea in a couple of months. This country over the years has seen luge success in the Olympics — 30 World Cup wins since 1994 as well as silver and bronze medals, the latest a bronze in women’s singles in 2014.

Luge Coach Fred Zimny (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

USA Luge this fall was in town September 9 and 10 looking for the next generation of team members and Olympians and held a youth clinic at Riverside Park in Minneapolis, one of 10 such clinics held during the months of August and September. Around 40 boys and girls ages nine through 13 took turns going down the park’s access ramp on a sled with wheels as well as other activities.

The Only One attended one of the sessions that lacked diversity. “It’s open to anyone who wants to try,” USA Luge Junior National Coach Fred Zimny told us. “We’re happy to have anyone.”

It was reminiscent of the movie Cool Runnings (1993), which was based on the true story of the Jamaican National Bobsled team that featured track runners who competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics. Zimny quickly explained the biggest difference between bobsled and luge.

“Bobsled is runners [who] jump on the sled. We’re looking for kids who are taller, a little bit heavier, and very strong in their upper body. Ideally…the kid will be maybe six feet, 190 [pounds],” the coach stressed.

Just as the Jamaican runners were taught bobsledding, Zimny promised the same for luge. “If they participate in any kind of skill-based sport like basketball or gymnastics, those skills translate well to luge,” he continued. “We can teach them how to luge.”

Zimny, who in October was honored by the U.S. Olympic Committee for his dedication to luge, remembered, “I just saw it on TV during the 1976 Olympics. It looked cool, and [I] bugged my dad to take me and give it a try. Thirty years later here am I.”

However, luge is hugely popular in Europe. “A country like Germany, they have four tracks. It’s really a European culture sport — they grow up with it,” Zimny said. “It’s tough to do luge in the U.S. It’s not an American sport. We have to get kids when they are 12 years old and teach them how to do it.”

Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York have the country’s only full-length, certified, Olympic-style luge tracks. The average luge run has a vertical drop of 30 stories or 300 feet, says a USA Luge fact sheet.

I remember seeing luge on the old Wide World of Sport programs. “They have been televising [luge] the last two years [on cable], but it gets the most exposure in Olympic years,” Zimny said.

USA Luge will use youth clinics around the country as primary recruitment tools to grow the sport. “I wish we had something like this when I was a kid,” said Zimny.


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