Lucy Hill naturbahn luge track in Negaunee, Michigan

Photo courtesy USA Luge

The Track

In Olympic luge, the slider (usually not called a "luger") lies down on a fiberglass sled, with no braking system, and heads feet-first down an icy track.

There are actually two types of luge: natural track and artificial track.

  • In natural-track luge (naturbahn), the track is made of packed snow and ice. The slope on a natural luge track is no greater than 1.5 percent (about 1 degree), meaning that for every 100 feet of track, the maximum elevation change is 1.5 feet. Speeds can reach up to 50 mph (80 kph). Anyone can make a natural luge track if he has enough snow to work with.
  • In artificial-track luge (kunstbahn), the track is steeper and has high-banked turns, with an average slope of 8 to 11 percent (about 5 to 6 degrees). Speeds on an artificial track can reach 90 mph (140 kph) -- American slider Tony Benshoof holds the Guinness record for fastest luge speed at 86.6 mph.

Kunstbahn luge track in Turin, Italy

Photo courtesy ©2005 Torino 2006

Olympic luge is kunstbahn, and it's not for the meek. Two weeks before the start of the 1964 Innsbruck Games, a slider from the British luge team died on the luge track during a practice run. Crashing at 90 mph on an icy track can be very ugly, and luge athletes often face serious injuries if they come off the sled.

The types of artificial luge tracks used in the Olympics are tremendous structures that embody a lot of technology. There are fewer than two dozen artificial luge tracks in the world.

An Olympic track is artificially refrigerated. The bobsled/luge course used in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games is a reinforced concrete track with evaporators buried in the concrete. The evaporators cool the track to 12 degrees F (-11 C). The track is then sprayed with water to create the approximate 2-inch surface of ice.

A typical luge course is less than 1 mile (1.6 km) long and drops about 300 to 400 feet (90-120 m) in the course of a one-minute run. The configuration includes straightaways, left and right turns, downhills (and sometimes a short uphill) and at least one S-type curve combination like the "labyrinth," which consists of three or four consecutive turns with no straightaways between them.

The 2002 Olympic luge track in Utah is 4,318 feet (1,316 meters) long and has 15 curves. The vertical drop is approximately 400 feet (120 m).

In Olympic luge, women start further down the track than men.

The luge course for the 2006 Torino Games is 4,708 feet (1,435 m) long with 19 curves and a 375-foot (114-m) vertical drop.

The course in Turin, Italy, took almost two years and 61.5 million euros (about $74 million) to build.

Reaching speeds up to 90 mph (140 kph) on the track, just staying on the sled would be a feat for a highly trained athlete. But sliders don't just have to stay on the sled -- they also need to maintain a strictly aerodynamic form, watch where they're going and try to keep the sled in the "sweet spot" that will carry them smoothly between turns, all while facing up to 5 g's on particularly strenuous courses. According to Canadian slider Jeff Christie in a CBC interview, the consequences of giving in to the g-forces can be pretty painful:

When you go into a corner pulling five g-forces with your head hanging off the end of the sled, suddenly your head is five times your body weight. You've got to keep it up so you can see where you're going because, trust me, the worst feeling in the world is having your head dragging on the ice at 120 kilometres per hour.

For the level of danger sliders face on each run, the amount of protective gear they wear is shockingly sparse. In the next section, we'll examine the equipment of luge.