Luge—which means sled in French and which is also the name of the sport—is a winter sport. An individual, or a pair, lies horizontally and face-up (a supine position) with the legs pointing forward on a specialized sled equipped with two blades (runners) and hurtles down an icy course. The course, which twists and turns down a hillside, is usually also used for the sports of bobsled and skeleton.
The object of luge is to get to the bottom of the course in the fastest aggregate time over a set number of runs. Today, the course is covered at speeds that can approach 55 mi (150 km) per hour, equivalent to the speed of a car on a highway. This blinding speed is accomplished on a device that has no brakes and where steering is provided by slight movements of the legs or shoulders to move the runners. The result is a breathtaking event to watch.
In the nineteenth century, sledding (or sliding) was a popular winter pastime at European resorts and spas. In 1883, the first race was set up on a 2.5 mi (4 km) trail that joined the villages of Klosters and Davos in the Swiss Alps.
The race triggered an interest in sliding. By 1913, a governing body was founded in Germany. The Internationale Schlittensportverband (International Sled Sports Federation) governed the sport until 1935, when it became incorporated in the Feédeération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing (FIBT; also known as the International Bobsleigh and Tobogganing Federation). The first world championships were held in 1955 in Oslo. By 1957, the burgeoning popularity of the sport (now called luge) resulted in the formation of an independent governing body (Feédeération Internationale de Luge de Course, FIL, International Luge Federation). Luge became an Olympic sport in 1964.
The sled used in luge is a fiberglass shell with slightly raised sides. The two runners on the underside protrude from the front of the sled and curve upward and in. The front of the sled has channels that accommodate the legs of the athlete. When properly positioned in the sled, the feet contact the inwardly curving front portion of the runners. By maneuvering the runners, the sled can be steered. Directional changes must be done smoothly and delicately, since at 93 mph (150 km/h) a sudden change would be disastrous.
A luge run begins with the athlete (or pair) sitting in the sled. To start the sled in motion, the slider grasps handles that are positioned at the start. Pushing the sled back and forth while grasping the handles to build up momentum, the slider finally pulls the handles back in an explosive motion to propel the sled forward and down the course. It is then that the run begins to be timed.
During the descent, the slider seeks to stay in the horizontal position as much as possible to maintain an aerodynamic profile. The racing suit and even the racing shoe (a "bootie") worn by the athletes are designed to slice cleanly through the air. Raising a head to glimpse the track ahead can slow a descent. Thus, an elite-level luge rider negotiates the course largely by feel, knowing when to apply pressure to the runners to guide the sled through the turns via the quickest route.
This delicate piloting takes place as the slider experiences almost five times the force of gravity, which is nearly the same as is felt by a pilot of a jet
Each competitor and the sled are subject to weight regulations, and the design of the sled must conform to defined criteria. As well, the sled runners must be within a set temperature range relative to the air temperature. All these restrictions act to remove variations between competitors. The winner is the competitor who can most skillfully pilot the sled down the icy course in the quickest aggregate time.
A luge run can be a natural course or can be artificially constructed complete with a refrigerated track. In North America, artificial luge runs constructed for the Olympics held in Calgary, Lake Placid, and Salt Lake City are still used as training facilities. Two other artificial tracks are located in Michigan. Other artificial and natural tracks are located in Europe and Japan.
Although the United States won silver and bronze medals in luge at the 1998 Olympics held in Nagano, Japan, the sport is the domain of European countries, in particular Germany. A combination of coaching, skilled sliders, and superior sled making technology has kept Germans sliders on the luge medal podium for decades.