Saturday, February 14, 1997
You gotta love these lugers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

U.S. lugers celebrate their doubles medals, from left: Gordy Sheer, Chris Thorpe, Brian Martin and Mark Grimmette.
(AP photo)
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NAGANO -- Forgive me if I am a little misty-eyed this morning. Our boys have broken through. The long wait is over at the luge run.

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Impartiality is impossible. Objectivity has taken a holiday. It is hard to behave like a detached journalist when you're dancing on the tabletops. After three decades of drought, U.S. luge finally made an Olympic medals stand Friday. Twice.

The American team of Gordy Sheer and Chris Thorpe won the silver medal in doubles luge and Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin took the bronze. Both teams performed brilliantly under pressure, setting track records on their second runs. It marked the first time any country outside of Austria, Germany, Italy and Russia had won a luge medal at the Winter Games.

Oh, joy. Oh, rapture.

''I feel,'' said U.S. head coach Wolfgang Schaedler, ''like the weight of the whole Rocky Mountain range just dropped from my shoulders.''

So do I. Eighteen years ago, at the Olympic luge run at Lake Placid, I helped found the U.S. Luge Writers Association. There were two of us then. There are two of us now.

The other member is Art Spander, a distinguished columnist from California. One of us is President of the Luge Writers, the other is the Secretary-Treasurer. Because no one bothered to take the minutes at our first meeting, I can't really tell you who does what or for how long.

I can tell you that the U.S. Luge Writers Association was formed to promote professional standards, to ensure that sliders received coverage appropriate to their skill and daring and, primarily, to kill time. It was bitterly cold that day in Lake Placid, and the sleds were whizzing by so swiftly that you couldn't pretend to see anything. (Luge is the only Olympic sport timed to the thousandth of a second.)

Art is a genius at filling gaps in a conversation. He is a compulsive talker, a man once described as ''An AM radio on scan.'' If the U.S. Luge Writers Association was not his idea, it must have been mine. Whatever, it got our minds off frostbite.

To qualify for membership, a journalist must have attended at least one luge race and, preferably, asked at least one salient question. Dues are $5 or two beers, though I don't think they've ever been collected.

Maybe we should start a membership drive. Or maybe we should wait to see if the medals of Nagano create a real surge in the sport.

''I don't expect to be walking down the street and have people say, 'Hey, there's that guy that won an Olympic medal,' '' said Sheer, a part-time communications student at Ohio State. ''We're not exactly Alberto Tomba in double luge or Michael Jordan. But what I hope is what we did here will bring awareness to out sport and brings in some new and better athletes.''

Currently, there are about 200 serious lugers in the United States, which is a big improvement over the historical talent pool. Until the Lake Placid luge run was built on Mt. Van Hoevenberg in 1979, U.S. lugers were typically American soldiers who happened to be stationed in Europe. Corporate sponsorship was a fantasy. Medals were a myth.

With better facilities and funding came faster finishes. Duncan Kennedy, who discovered the luge while working as an ABC flunky in 1980, became the first American singles competitor to crack the Top 10 at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville. Wendel Suckow gave the U.S. its first world championship in 1993, and was fifth at the Lillehammer Olympics the following year.

''It's been a long struggle,'' Grimmette said Saturday. ''Luge has been primarily a European sport. We've been struggling hard over the last 10 or 15 years to change that. It's taken a lot of hard work.''

I think I can speak for the U.S. Luge Writers Association in saying that it has been a privilege to be a small part of the process. If we ever hold another meeting, I will recommend the medalists for honorary membership.

Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

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