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Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Luge race not best bang for buck

By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine

PARK CITY, Utah -- It is said that life is not a spectator sport.

Well, luge ain't either. Watching luge is like watching NASCAR, from three feet away, with binoculars.

Still, more than 13,000 people trudged up a Park City mountain Wednesday to see several nanosecond-long blurs faintly resembling human beings, each followed by a chorus of "Ooooh!" and "I missed it again!"

Then, after a few frigid hours, those who remained found out via a P.A. system that the German women had ran the table and leapt past Americans in the total medal tally, 12-10. Not anyone's idea of the Olympic experience.

"It's a very bad spectator sport," American slider Courtney Zablocki said. "It's hard to see anything."

The fans had their reasons for coming. Mike Meza from Riverside, Calif., didn't want to shell out $45 for hockey tickets (these ducats ran him 35 bones). "We just saw one of the medical staff from the Torino Games in 2006," he said. "That was neat."

Joshua Allem, age 12, came up here after entering a school drawing for free tickets to various events. "Yeah," he muttered in his Charlie Brown voice. "I got luge."

The crowd was informed that Curve 6 might be a good perch to watch the sliders fly by. But most of the fans there begged to differ.

"I'm just watching the blur go by," said Jeff Larson of Portland, Oregon. Jeff brought his digital camera for a keepsake or two. But a quick glance through his shots revealed a dozen or so photos of an empty track.

"Missed that one," Larson said. "Missed that one. And that one. There's a head. You can see the feet on that one. Oh! Here's one! There's a track worker with a cigarette. You're not supposed to smoke up here, you know."

Steve Seymour watched the women's final with his 12-year-old son, Jay, -- after Jay got lost for about a half-hour.

"We thought this would be fun," Seymour said. "We went to curling and that was nothing real pleasant. This wasn't what I was hoping for."

As the final round began, a gaggle of schoolgirls congregated along the track. They continued their conversation as the sliders whizzed by.

"We were just talking about -- what's this sport called?" said Dusty Eden, 13. "Well, we were talking about boys."

Not that the girls were missing any drama. The Germans -- basically the Dream Team of luge world -- had this thing won from run one. American Becky Wilczak entered the day in fourth place but more than a half-second behind German Silke Kraushaar. That's the equivalent of entering the final minute of play in a hockey game down 5-0. Wilczak finished fifth.

Even if Wilczak came back to win a medal, no one on hand could tell you why. A twitch here or a shift there makes all the difference, but not even a super slow-motion replay shows the difference between winning and losing. The sliders themselves can't tell you why the Germans are so good.

"You just have to keep your aerodynamic position," Zablocki said. "I can't explain it."

And it's not like the fans are really helping the athletes by showing up anyway. Home-track advantage doesn't exist in luge. "I can't really hear anything on the way down," said American Ashley Hayden sheepishly. And bronze medalist Kraushaar actually blamed the fans for her inability to defend the gold she won in Nagano. "It was unbelievably hard," she said, "because the spectators made me nervous."

Never mind the danger factor. A sled flying off a track at 80 mph could really ruin someone's day. Yesterday, a volunteer track worker lost the tip of his index finger trying to stop a runaway sled.

So if you want a little taste of the Olympic experience, come on up to Park City for a race. But if you want to actually see athletic endeavor, stay home.

"We ride for a mile, and you only see a little part," Hayden said. "The best way is to watch us on TV."

Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine.