A Brief History of Americans Trying to Medal in Luge

Here's some free Olympic gambling advice: when it comes to luge, bet on whoever's the most German.

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2014 Luge schedule, via Google.

Here's some free Olympic gambling advice: when it comes to luge, bet on whoever's the most German. Since luge was first introduced at 1964 Winter Olympics its three events — men's singles, women's singles, and doubles — have been dominated by Germans, Austrians, and German-speaking Italians. An American has never medaled in a singles event and have never done better than silver in doubles (in 1998 and again in 2002), despite some success at the World Cup. This year the Olympic committee has added a team relay (one men's single, one women's single and one doubles pair), and based on prediction the US might win the bronze.

Gold favorite Felix Loch. (AP)

Germany (and East Germany) has won 70 of the 117 Olympic luge medals given out over the last 50 years. Part of their dominance, as the AP explains, is the fact that Germany has four international standard luge tracks in the country, while the US has two. And in Germany kids start luging at a younger age, which lets the country weed out the losers. "These athletes are the result of a very big process of ... ha, it's hard to say in English ... auslese," Georg Hackl, who won gold at the 1992, 1994 and 1998 games, told the AP. Basically, you pick the best grapes to make the best medal-winning wine.

The US has tried to make wine its own way. In 1988, the US team thought riblet, a special tape, would be their secret weapon. As The Los Angeles Times reported at the time:

The U.S. team had big hopes for Riblet, a tape applied to the underside of the pod on the sled designed to reduce wind drag. They thought it might be so popular that one of the U.S. sliders could place in the top 10. [...]

Instead of a top 10 finish, the U.S. gave itself another dose of what is becoming the common denominator for American teams at these games--controversy.

Duncan Kennedy accused the US Luge Association of tampering with his sled, resulting in him finishing in 14th place. In 1992 he improved dramatically, finishing in 10th place.

In 1998 Gordy Sheer and Chris Thorpe finally won a silver for the US in luge doubles, with Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin winning the bronze. In 2002, Sheer and Thorpe won bronze and Grimmette and Martin won silver. (You can guess where the gold-winning teams were from.) It was a mini-Miracle on Ice. From The Washington Post:

"We broke through the barrier," said Sheer, who admitted that he and his teammates felt the pressure of America's long-running lack of Olympic success in the sport. [...] "And now it's up to everyone else who comes after us to one-up us and win the gold."

Sheer also "joked" about how the Germans, Austrians and Italians who dominate the sport used to make fun of Americans behind their backs. Everyone else who came after them has yet to one-up them, and Americans have spent years attempting to move out of the netherlands of 4th place and beyond. Before the 2010 Winter Games, The Baltimore Sun profiled the women of the US luge team and their high hopes:

Zablocki, 2006. (AP)

The joke among the women of luge is that the highest non-German finisher at any race is the real winner, so strong is that team's grip on the top of the podium.

Erin Hamlin is tired of being a punch line.

"Yeah, it gets old," says Hamlin, 23, of Remsen, N.Y. "We improve every year, but we still have a place to look up to." [...]

Since 1988, the U.S. women have advanced in the Olympic standings. Bonnie Warner Simi finished sixth in Calgary; Cameron Myler moved up another notch in 1992, and Becky Wilczak-Brand matched that in 2002. And in Turin in 2006, Courtney Zablocki finished fourth, .765 seconds behind bronze medalist Huefner, the German who is the favorite to win gold here on Tuesday.

Huefner won, an Austrian finished second, and a German finished third. Hamlin ended up finishing in 12th place.

This year, Felix Loch of Germany is the overwhelming favorite to win gold in the men's single, unless he falls off his sled or decides he doesn't feel like hurtling down a slide at 80 miles per hour on Sunday. Same with Germany's Natalie Geisenberger in the Women's single and Germany's Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt. Anything is possible, but sports blogs are predicting a bronze finish for the US in the team relay, at best. "I don't want to be a pessimist and say it's unexpected," Hamlin told the AP Thursday, "But it is."

Still, Hamlin really, really, really wants to win this year:

"It would be awesome. It would be like the greatest thing ever," Hamlin said, when asked to explain what an Olympic medal would mean. "It's unexpected for 99 percent of the field. It would be like the pinnacle of everything, ever. It would be awesome to be able to take that home. Everyone would freak out."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.