Took a tour of the Sliding Centre, where luge, skeleton, and bobsleigh events happen. This was illuminating, and not only because it was very brightly lit. I had to wonder why flash photography was verboten when the lights are so bright, and the luge athletes aren’t looking where they’re going anyways. They memorize the course, because looking up slows you down.
The luge course is absolutely a feat of engineering. A km and a half long, a four story drop just into the first corner, and athletes reaching speeds around 158 km/hr and hitting 5Gs. However, the infrastructure to do this is hyperbolic. A building the size of an arena is for refrigeration- just to cool the course and allow ice to be built. Pipes for the ammonia coolant run from the building the length of the (km and half) concrete and steel structure of the course. The entire course is not just brilliantly lit, roofed for safety (so no one goes flying out of the track), wired for electronic speed and start/finish sensors that measure thousandths of seconds, but because the sun can change the quality of the ice, or snow can interfere, the whole course has blinds (not unlike roll-down window shades) to cover the open side, which if needed, will be vigorously manned by a large workforce who will roll them up for the cameras as riders pass, and then pull them back down to protect the precious (hand-groomed! and “spritzed”!) course from the elements. Seriously.
Then there’s the bleachers and amenities for the 8000 spectators to be accommodated, the media staging and housing, etc, the administration buildings, the security and crowd control, the fossil fuels that bring all the people and materials halfway up this mountain, the vehicles that shuttle athletes back to the top of the course after their seconds of sliding, and naturally the omnipresent first-aid contingent, and you have an energy sink that eclipses the usage of many third world cities perched on the side of a mountain in Whistler, that only a few dozen athletes will actually be able to use.
This blatant excess and waste really slapped me across the face, in a way it never has seeing it on tv. I don’t think anyone can miss this dichotomy. What a strange sport, I thought, to require so much manpower and energy, and this giant structure, for so short a run, and for so few elite. This does not at all dampen my desire to throw myself down the tub on one or another of these little sleds, given the chance. I totally want to rock the luge.
While we were there a luge team of kids as young as nine were practicing. Since they don’t start as high on the course, they were only reaching speeds of around 100 km/hr.
I learned that the skeleton weighs far more than the luge sled. I was startled when I picked it up. The thing that looks like a cookie sheet weighs 60 lbs. Not only that, the face first skeleton is reputed to be the safest of the three sliding sports. I climbed in the bobsleds and decided what was most impressive about bobsleigh is that four burly guys glide gracefully into that thing from a sprint. Stationary, and solo, it took me some effort to wiggle into place. I was told that the two guys in the middle of the four-man bobsleigh do nothing but ride along after the sprint at the top. The biggest hazard is getting your thighs sliced up by the other runners’ shoes that are surfaced with hundreds of ice spikes. Quite a specialized discipline.
As you walk toward the course in the night, dazzled by the glowing bright white ice of the graceful finish loop, it looks rather like a roller coaster. The final loop sends the athletes straight back up the hill, to slow them down as they brake. This also does not translate on Tv. This looks cool from inside the loop. They come down, high on the wall of the final top-speed corner curve and then get spit back uphill at the same angle they just came down, out of sight into the tube,braking valiantly as they go. The finish line is actually some distance uphill. Awesome.