Germany Is a Little Too Good at Luge

Deutschland's sliding dominance continues in Sochi.
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Germany's luge relay team leaps in celebration after winning the gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

The high-speed sport of luge demands reflexes, precision, and fearlessness as you hurdle down a slick track at speeds approaching 85 miles per hour, with only your helmet and bodysuit separating you from a crash. And this year, there were four events: men's singles, women's singles, doubles, and the newly added team relay event. That meant four chances to win a gold medal.

And, as usual, the Germans won them all.

Since the addition of luge in the 1964 Winter Games, German athletes have won 75 of the 129 medals awarded for it, and 31 of luge's 44 gold medals. In the singles events, a German man or woman has taken home 20 out of the 30 combined Olympic titles. This year, Germany took home the gold in all four events, its eighth Olympic sweep in the sport. Tobias Arlt, who won this year's doubles gold medal with his teammate Tobias Wendl, told reporters after their victory, "Germany is on top of the world in luge. It's our sport."

So why are Germans so much better at it than everyone else?

The legendary German slider Georg Hackl, who won three gold and two silver Olympic medals in luge in the 1990s, attributes the dominance to Germany's emphasis on youth recruitment. "There is a very selective process of recruitment of athletes who have the ideal measurements and body weight," he said. "In the junior programs they focus on selecting athletes for their body structure." But the focus on Vorsprung durch Technik—advancement through technology—also plays a role. German sliders perpetually refine their aerodynamics and their sleds to shave off vital tenths of a second.

Some competitors are suspicious of the country's success. "The Germans dominate, [but] in all the inspection commissions they are getting around the rules a bit," claimed Valery Silakov, Russian's Olympic luge coach, in 2012. "But how can you fight it? They all live in the luge Mecca of Königssee, where you have the German luge and bobsleigh federation and the International Luge Federation. They've all known each other for decades." German luge officials categorically deny these accusations.

But others readily acknowledge German's natural edge in luge.

"They've been doing this since they came out of the womb," American slider Kate Hansen observed in Sochi.

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Matt Ford is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees social media.

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