Luge Canada

Gough catching up

By Jeff Blair, The Globe and Mail
Posted Thursday, December 3, 2009 6:42 PM ET

ALTENBERG -- The truth is very much as Alex Gough sees it. There really is no other reason to come this far into the wilderness unless you are a luge or bobsleigh competitor.

You don't visit Altenberg. You commit to it, because even though it has been Alpinized and on the surface Westernized, there are reminders this track was built by the East German state police to be first and foremost secret and inaccessible. This place is more of a retreat than a resort, more austere than ostentatious.

On Tuesday it was gloomy and drizzly, a day that Gough described as "Altenberg's reminder of how gross it can be.

"You don't come here by choice. I mean, it's nice when there's snow in the trees and the sun is out, but that does not happen often."

This weekend's World Cup race will be held here in the heart of the former East German sports machine and in many ways remains the spiritual home of the country's powerhouse sliding teams.

That's significant, because Altenberg's track compares more favourably than any track in the world to the Whistler sliding centre that will be the site of the Winter Olympics. The Germans, in fact, will train for the Olympics on this track. Secondly, Gough, 22, will be competing after a career-best fourth-place finish last weekend in Igls, Austria.

"It was pretty big for me," Gough, of Calgary, said. "I finished fourth at worlds [the world championship race in Lake Placid, N.Y.] but to do it in a World Cup race on a European track was huge, because we just don't get as much time on these tracks as the other competitors.

"It was a bit of a redemption race, too," Gough said. "Last year at Igls was my first World Cup race after an injury and I crashed in qualifying, finished 32nd in the Nations Cup and didn't even get to race in that Cup event."

Wolfgang Staudinger, the former German Olympic doubles bronze medalist and coach, who is hired to oversee the Canadian program after Turin, is not so bold as to promise a medal. The Germans own the top four spots in the women's World Cup rankings. Gough is fifth.

But in Gough and Sam Edney, 26, of Calgary, who finished fifth in a men's race in Calgary and had the fastest run on route to an 18th-place finish in Igls, Staudinger believes "it is only a question of time before one or the other makes the podium. Just like the Austrians, Italians or Latvians.

"The result was very important for Alex," Staudinger said. "It's funny, but in Igls, our runs weren't very good and I think she [Gough] probably surprised herself. But it was an important step for the team, because Edney also pulled one out. And when this happens, people realize that maybe all they really have to do is just start and slide to the best of their potential. It's not a mystery any more.

"Two years ago, they [Gough and Edney] were not in position. But now they are there athletically - they have the start times, their body weights are up - that all the bricks you need to build a house are in place."

Nobody matches the Germans when it comes to luge - other than Armin Zöggeler , 35, the police officer who has won gold in the past two Olympics and who is the only Italian Olympian, Winter or Summer, to win a medal in four consecutive Olympics. In the past three Winter Olympics, Germany has won six of nine gold medals in women's singles, men's singles and doubles (a men's event). They have won 14 of 27 medals overall.

Staudinger estimates that 60 to 70 per cent of the unified German program owes its roots to East Germany. Altenberg was built, Staudinger says, because the Stasi "got tired of seeing the army kick their ass" in sports events. This year, the Germans are more focused than ever on Altenberg. It is similar technically to Whistler, albeit slower so that in a sport that relies so much on repetition and muscle memory and pressure points, the

Germans will likely overcome any favourable run gap the Canadians might be expected to muster.

So much for home track advantage, eh? "That's why I say whenever anybody talks about a home-track advantage in Whistler, there is none. The Germans will show up and the Germans will be ready. For sure they will be ready."

Of course they will. They have Altenberg - a place with a legacy different than its planners intended but a legacy nonetheless.