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How Luge Works

By: Julia Layton & Patty Rasmussen  | 

The Luge Race

luge start block
There are six basic phases to the luge start: the block, compression, pull, extension, push and paddle. This image shows Latvian slider Kristers Aparjods at the block rocking his sled forward. This action sets the rhythm for the rest of the start motion. Anton Novoderezhkin/Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS/via Getty Images

The Olympic luge competition has four divisions: men's singles, women's singles, gender-neutral doubles and team relay. Since a higher weight is advantageous in luge, doubles teams are typically all male. Most international races besides the Olympics have single sliders doing two runs each. Times for both runs are added together, and the slider with the fastest cumulative time wins.

In the Olympics, singles luge competition consists of four runs instead of two (doubles still perform only two runs), all of which count toward the final time.

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Since every luge track is different, there are no blanket World or Olympic record in luge. There are only track records.

At the start of the luge course, the slider grabs two handles — one on each side of the track — and uses these to rock back and forth to build momentum for the start. Then the slider propels themself down the course with their hands, using their spiked gloves to paddle through the first 10 feet (3 meters) or so of the track to help them gain speed before lying down on the sled.

Approaching the start of the downhill, the slider lies face up and feet first on their back and remains is this position for the remainder of the run. Sliders only lift their head enough to have an idea where they are on the track. They use their body weight to navigate the twists, turns and straightaways while remaining relaxed, something not easy achieve. Their body must be stiff enough to maximize acceleration — any wobbling or looseness increases friction between the sled and the track — and yet relaxed enough to absorb the intense forces acting on them throughout the run.

Since steering also increases friction, the slider steers as little as possible, only pressing on the bows when necessary. Most of the time, control is a matter of being one with the sled and letting gravity do its thing.

Sliders must cross the finish line with their sleds; finishing without it or even pushing it across the finish line means automatic disqualification.

Timing

Olympic luge is timed to 1/1000 of a second; it is timed using photoelectric sensors at the start and finish. The setup has a light transmitter/receiver pair at each end of the run. The transmitter is on one side of the track, and the receiver is on the other. At the start, the slider triggers the timer when he crosses the line because he blocks the light beam. At the finish line, he stops the timer the same way.

At the 1998 Nagano Games, the time difference between the women's gold and the women's silver was 2/1000 of a second, the smallest margin in luge history. This minuscule difference between first and second place drew a great deal of controversy, and engineers were called in to calculate the system's margin of error.

Since the 1998 Games, luge timing systems have been calibrated before each race using a GPS satellite with an atomic clock that's accurate to the 10-10 seconds. The calibration process is basically about synchronizing the timers on the luge course with the atomic clock on the satellite. With a modified GPS receiver built into the timing system, the satellite can trigger the start timer and then trigger the stop timer after a certain interval. If the time noted by the satellite and the time noted by the ground system matches to at least the second thousandth of a second, the timing system is ready for a race.

Completing a luge run is an exhilarating and physically demanding task. Let's take a look at the physics involved in making it from the start to the finish.

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