Luge looks silly. It looks easy, too: lie down on a sled, let gravity do the work, climb the podium. In reality, of course, luge is fascinatingly complex. And, as American Emily Sweeney’s brutal crash this week made clear, it’s dangerous too.
A good start is crucial (that’s where the gloves with little spikes on the fingertips come in). The rule of thumb says every 1/100th of a second you lose up top compounds to 1/10th of a second by the end of the run. Aerodynamics is so important, sliders practice their form in wind tunnels. Because that form includes keeping their head back, they rely on peripheral vision and memory to steer—if you can call flexing your feet and shoulders to manipulate a sled “steering.” Winning requires finding the perfect line through a dozen or so turns on a course made of ice, whose exact shape changes from one run to the next.
Of course, you’d know none of this from watching luge during the Winter Olympics. That’s because NBC’s commentators focus more on things like the American luger who had an at-home luge track as a kid, and something called a “clean line” that apparently matters a lot.
To go from idle curiosity to the active appreciation these world class athletes deserve, I need to know what to look and listen for. I need a guide, not a commentator.
You wouldn’t know that the “sled” these people ride as fast as 90 mph is actually a patch of fiberglass, barely bigger than an Olympian tuckus, atop a pair of overgrown fish hooks. Those are bowed, so most of the time, just a few inches of the sled is touching the ice. I learned that by calling Chris Wightman, a former Olympian who’s now president of the Ontario Luge Association, who told me about the challenges in commanding one of these sleds. “If you sneezed,” Wightman says, “it would go out of control.”
The speed! The precision! That’s the kind of thing that gives me, a know-nothing, a glimpse of what lugers love about their sport. The kind of thing that helps me become an informed spectator. It’s maddening that after watching several hours of the sport—men, women, and the ungainly doubles—and listening to the commentary, you’d still have no idea what’s going on.
What these talking heads should do is talk about the sport the way they would to someone who’s not an expert at all. They should find and feast on the things that convey what makes each sport special, worthy of a place in the Olympiad. There’s more than enough to fill up air time. Like the fact that biathletes train to shoot between heartbeats. Or what kind of RPMs your body has to hit to land a quadruple jump. Or that cross country skiers use wax that can either grip snow or slide over it, depending on whether they’re going up or downhill.
It’s not impossible. Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski do a lovely job explaining how scoring works in ice skating, with commentary on why completing a quad spin and falling is better than landing a triple. Bode Miller taught me that in slalom, some results come down to a skier’s waxing skills (which sucks, by the way). But those are the big, marquee sports, popular to the point of familiarity. My favorite thing about the Olympics is that it’s the one time you see all the really weird stuff: biathlon, speed skating, curling, the heck-why-not combination of ski jumping and cross country skiing, the lunacy of skeleton that prompted this seminal tweet from Leslie Jones.
Now more than ever before, we can watch all of the weird and funky sports, thanks to the multiplication of TV channels and online streaming. I can skip the primetime broadcast and watch one bobsledding quartet after another jump into a iron tub on its way downhill. But to go from idle curiosity to the active appreciation these world class athletes deserve, I need to know what to look and listen for. I need a guide, not a commentator.
If NBC is going to maintain its grip over Olympic broadcast rights, the peacock has two years to figure this out before the Tokyo games. Because I’m gonna have a lot of questions about canoe slalom.
The Olympics, Explained