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Despite Whistler fatality, luge on a fast track

The Globe and Mail

by Jeff Blair

It was a sport that claimed a life just hours before the opening ceremony, and one in which Canada didn’t come close to winning a medal.

Yet luge did not fall into fiscal or spiritual disarray after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C..

Instead, the Canadian Luge Association had to turn away eight- to 12-year-old children whose parents tried to enroll them in its Calgary-based training program. It received a $10,000 cash grant from a Calgary oil and gas businessman, John Hooker, himself a former slider who put up a bounty of sorts: $3,000 for a World Cup gold medal, $3,000 for a silver medal and $2,000 for a top-10 result. And a tattooed, lip-ringed 23-year-old slider from Calgarian named Alex Gough became the first Canadian-born athlete to win a medal at the world championships this year, capturing bronze to go along with three other World Cup bronzes.

“It took us eight years after Calgary [1988] to get where we are today from a resource and infrastructure perspective, post-Vancouver,” said Walter Corey, CLA high performance director. “This has been by far our best post-Olympics season ever for recruitment. We’ve had to turn people away in Calgary because of lack of ice time.”

All of this explains why burnishing the legacy of the Whistler Sliding Centre is so important to the growth of the sport in this country. The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili and the resulting decision to lower the starting gates for Olympic competition have soiled the reputation of the third most expensive facility constructed for the Games.

And while both Corey and Tim Farstad, the executive director of the CLA, say parents haven’t raised safety as an issue any more than they did previously, Canadian national coach and former German Olympic medalist Wolfgang Staudinger worries about tryout camps in Whistler being less successful than those in Calgary.

“To develop world-class lugers, you need a track like Whistler,” Staudinger said. “Calgary has never been a very challenging track. It has its strengths, but Whistler has it all: the speed, the technical demands. It’s all you need to develop a world-class slider on one track. In Europe, even in Germany, people need to travel around to three or four tracks to do what we can do in one track.

“We struggled to get people out there [Whistler],” said Staudinger, who admitted he considered leaving the program after the Vancouver Games. “Because of the accident? Possibly.”

Luge’s main corporate partners are Fast Track Capital and PartyLite Canada, a home fragrance and décor company, who are both on board through the 2014 Sochi Games. That is significant, since many corporate sponsors don’t resurface until the third year of the four-year Olympic cycle.

“And we are the poster boy for the Own The Podium program,” Farstad said. “We were probably one of the lower-end teams they supported, but we were well-organized and efficient. Does OTP work? We’re an example that shows it does.”

Canada has a teenage doubles team of Justin Snith and Tristan Walker that are considered up-and-comers, a men’s slider in Sam Edney, who has been pegged as one to watch by multiple Olympic medalist Armin Zoeggeler and has shown top-three strength in a team relay event that could become part of the Sochi Games.

But if the sport is to develop on a regional basis here as it does in Germany, the Whistler Sliding Centre is vital. Unlike bobsleigh and skeleton, which recruits athletes from track and field and football, lugers start out as young as 8. In Staudinger’s native Bavaria, busloads of school kids are driven to luge tracks, and the basis of the country’s powerhouse team is an intense regional rivalry.

“You can’t get better at luge without sliding,” Corey said. “For that reason, we are a facility-based sport. It’s a much more manageable commitment for a parent if they can take their kid to the track, drop them off after school or after dinner, then pick them up. Whistler is in an area with a culture of extreme sports and skiing, and right now we have a good little group of kids from Pemberton, Squamish and Whistler. But, we haven’t seen it take off like we wanted it to. We need to capture kids from the city [Vancouver] and maybe it’s a matter of having luge weekends instead of ski weekends.”

Right now just one national team luger, Brendan Hauptmann of Kimblerly, B.C., is from outside Alberta. Farstad would like to see a team split 50-50 between Alberta and B.C. athletes, and don’t get him started on what would happen if Quebec City were to land an Olympics.