Luge Canada

Wrapping my mind around Altenberg

By Jeff Blair, The Globe and Mail
Posted Friday, December 4, 2009 8:59 AM ET

There probably ought to be a place in this world for a town whose pastry shop won't give you take-away cups of coffee and instead insists you sit down and drink it properly out of china. Or whose convenience store owner shakes her head when you ask for a take-away cup of coffee and says instead: "No, Gluhwein. Just Gluhwein."

This is Altenberg - at its bleakest and creepiest, its soul as the former East German Stasi' sports centre easy to imagine; on a cold, crisp day with sunshine and still air and crunchy snow a series of quaint mountain villages with remnants of socialist apartments visible on the 40-minute, uphill train ride out of Dresden.

The Canadian luge team is staying at the Berghotel Friedrichshohe, about a 10-minute walk from my quarters at the Zum Baren (To The Bear)'.

Techically, we're in the village of Oberbarenburg, about a three-kilometre walk through a forest path in the morning. At night - and when it's night here, it's really night - I walk home along the highway because I'm not certain I understand the explanation for all the green signs with bears on them that dot the trails. Like, does the No. 2 on this trail mean it's the second trail or I need to walk twice as fast to avoid bears.

Bears. I'm detecting a trend, no?

You need to wrap your mind around Altenberg. On a visit to the Canadian team and their coach, Wolfgang Staudinger, on Wednesday, athletes from three or four countries were sprawled in chair and on the floor trying to find any hot-spots for their laptop computers. It's expensive to use a cell-phone in Eurrope and in that way this place is an accountant's dream: to call the office Wednesday I had to walk half-way toward the Canadian hotel at 10 p.m., then stand in a field.

(Thursday morning, as I was watching Staudinger coach his athletes, I received a nice welcome message from a Czech cellular phone provider. We both laughed.)

Alex Gough, the 22-year-old slider from Calgary, says that an athlete's existence doesn't change much from place to place because most of the time they're in the hotel or doing dryland training. The difference in environment, she says, is created mostly by the people.

It's hard to tell much about the people in Oberbarenburg, because there don't appear to be many of them. But there is a slowness of pace to them and a distance that, for me at least, is less off-putting than I'd expected.

I'll have more to say about Staudinger in a Saturday story, but suffice to say that it's intriguing seeing the area through the eyes of a West German slider who used to have to surrender his passport to go into the east.

Staudinger never competed for Germany after unification - he was already on his coaching path - but he said that the hotel the Canadians were staying in was the same one he stayed in after unification. It was not as nice as it is now, he said. But it was a "step up" from the accommodations of some of the teams.

This area was built by the Stasi minister Erich Mielke because he tired of seeing athletes from the army beat his police in competition, and in the centre of Altenberg proper - the train station - there still stands a prototypical green communist-style statue of a figure with skis. Aside from the skis, it would look at home in Beijing. You can buy a Mielke post-card at the one store in Oberbarenburg.

"All around here - the whole area - was full of socialist hotels," said Staudinger, who was born in the Bavarian city of Berchtesgaden. "The government told you when you took holidays. You had to reserve these places five years ahead. We had to give up our passports, apply for a visa and you always had a member of the socialist party organize our days - someone who was with you from the time you woke up until you went to your room.

"Our coaches were only allowed to give us information on the track."

So secretive was the place that Staudinger remembers one competition where non East-bloc athletes were housed in a hotel in Dresden and bused up each for their workouts and competition.

These two days around Staudinger have been remarkable. He is a very open person - married to former Canadian Marie-Claude Doyon - and has a keen interest in seeing the sport develop in Canada. The country is, he said, on the cusp - for example, it has a "sled house" in Calgary that he says is "the envy of the rest of the world." And he expends no little amount of energy thanking the Own The Podium program and Sport Canada for the resources they've put into the sport. His work has caught the attention of international officials.

Luge is off-the-wall popular in Germany. Alpine sports, in particular, hold sway (biathlon had half a page in the paper; Tiger Woods was relegated to a brief and, on Friday, was blessedly absent from the paper.) Staudinger says that luge is in some ways Germany's winter version of hockey in Canada. Whole schools have road trips where students each make on run down a luge course under the eyes of scouts.

It is true that when you see our amateur athletes internationally, you feel a sense of pride. Canadian slider Jeff Christie is a popular - and effective - athlete representative on the sports international governing body, the FIL.

As I wrote in Beijing, they play well with others. In some ways, I feel like an interloper when I cover these events. It's bizarre, but whereas I generally don't give a rat's ass about what professional athletes think - no journalist should - when I interview an amateur athlete, the first thing that enters my mind is: "This person has a mother and father and siblings and friends and - geezus, God - I hope I don't ask a stupid question." On a good day, I try to keep the dumb-ass stuff down to a dozen.

(Plus, you know, you just don't have the recall you might have in a sport you've been around. In today's print edition, I wrote that Gough's fourth-place finish was the best-ever by a Canadian in a World Cup. That would be true were it not for Regan Lauscher's second in Lake Placid in 2004 or Doyon's third in Sarajevo in 1987 or Tyler Seitz's third in Calgary in 2002.

The other aspect of the amateur sports assignment is that often the reporter hasn't seen the athlete at his or her best. I mean, I didn't see Gough finish fourth. Yet if she's brutal this weekend, there I'll be asking her about it. If I was them, I'd have a hard time not responding: "Uh-huh. Yeah ... and were where you when I won a World Cup race?" ("Watching somebody blow by human pylon Jose Calderon," would be the proper answer.)

Over a Radeberger pilsner, Staudinger shrugged. "That's part of the game," he said. There is much to like about a man who, upon discovering that you have misplaced your European AC adapter converter, answers a request for a spare by driving into town to search for one. The search is fruitless "we are in the back country," he says apologetically. Then - miracle of miracles - an email lands on your blackberry. Forty-five minutes late, but there it is ...

"Have found a spare. Come by to pick it up."

A morning spent on the shoulder of a coach as he watches his charges do their training runs turns out to be one of the top three things you've done in your professional career. I'll write about it Saturday; this, like most sliding sports is a plethora of details and hundredths of a second. It's one of those sports that is cool, if you let it be cool.

Staudinger ended an interview by taking me across the street from the Canadian hotel to Bojarski's Einkauf, the village store. "This is very much like it was when I first came here," he said. A post-card rack includes communist greeting cards and souvenirs. Staudinger directs you to a corner shelf where containers of Bautz'ner mustard is located. "That's East German," he said, smiling. "A lot of this stuff is just like it was then.

"People in this area ... they still have an attachment to the past," Staudinger says matter-of-factly. I tried some in my hotel. I can see why people like it - the mustard, not communism.

I asked Staudinger about old grudges - about how East German slider Harald Czudaj, for example, admitted later that he spied for the Stasi. He shrugged. People did what they did for different reasons, Staudinger said. Some had no choice. "That's past stuff," he said. "I really don't have much to say about it. You move on."