Luge on downhill slope to an uncertain future

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The Independent Online
The governing body of a sport that half the country enjoyed over the past few weeks has been forced to cancel next month's British Championships - because so few people are interested in taking part. You cannot really blame the organisers. After all, just 25 turned up for last year's competition, and a mere seven of those competed in the senior men's event.

"Strange, isn't it?" Chris Dyason, former secretary of the Great Britain Luge Association, said. "Almost everybody in this country has had a go at tobogganing, but we haven't got enough money to achieve any of the things we would like - and we don't get a penny from the Sports Council now."

Mind you, there is a slight difference between sliding down your local hill on a plastic tray and riding a racing luge. About 60mph difference, for a start. Even bobsleigh is staid by comparison. Dyason, who has ridden the notorious Cresta Run, said: "It wasn't the same buzz: it was desperately tame and easy in comparison to luge."

Luge (French for sled) is a theme-park ride designed by Stephen King. It's like plunging down a giant tube of ice at 80mph on a supercharged saucer with your face inches from the ground. The luge has no brakes and rudimentary steering. To make it go faster, you lie back, feet first, think of England and don't look where you're going. "You use a lot of peripheral vision," explained Derek Prentice, the British chairman.

Prentice and Dyason discovered the sport back in 1976, although Britain has competed since luge became an Olympic sport in 1964. At the start, our team comprised the same few people better known for their partying skills than their luge ability. After three Olympics, they were getting too old and sensible to keep subjecting their bodies to luge's punishing G-forces.

An advert in a hang-gliding magazine (clever psychology, that) drew a small crowd of daredevils to Innsbruck for a trial. Dyason recalled: "They bought six new racing luges for the week's trial, but we didn't have a clue how to put them together. They were almost unusable because we didn't understand about getting the right profile for the runners. The steel curves just came as raw pieces of metal but we ran on them straight away."

He found the sport totally addictive. "It's very scary before you start. The image I retain is early morning, with floodlights giving the course a grey gleam. It really looks cruel. You think: 'What am I doing here?' But when you start, you concentrate totally and, a minute or so later, you think: "That was brilliant, let's do it again.' I have not found another sport that gives the same buzz." In the 1980 Olympics, he and Prentice finished 14th in the pairs, still Britain's best placing, "although my leg was in plaster at the time," Dyason added.

Luge enthusiasts get used to injuries. "Yes, you get a lot of bumps, bruises, scrapes and breaks," Prentice, a London brewer, admitted. It was once considered too dangerous for an Olympic sport, an argument reinforced by the death in 1964 of Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski, a member of the British team. But deaths are very rare. "Our crashes tend to be more frequent but less dangerous than bobsleigh," Prentice said.

Thrilling, fast, dangerous, and undeniably glamorous - so why is it not more popular? Money, inevitably, is a factor. Back in the mid-1980s, it attracted significant funding from the Sports Council. "We put in an eight- year plan but said very clearly that there was no point in looking for instant results," Dyason said. "It ran for two years, and then they turned the tap off."

Luge had its grant cut by pounds 47,000 overnight in 1988. Like bobsleigh, it was told that it could not expect money for development because it did not contribute towards increasing sporting participation in the United Kingdom. This hit the sport so hard that the British Racing Toboggan Association had to delay changing its name because it could not afford the cost of altering its stationery.

The association has struggled on - but it only meets a couple of times a year now, all its officials are honorary and it has no money to support promising prospects like Annabelle Nash, the daughter of a 1964 bobsleigh gold medallist; Steve Ovett's brother, Nick, the reigning British champion, who has temporarily retired because of the cost of five months on the World Cup circuit; or Paul Hix, who at 18 was 12th in the world junior championships. Hix was born on the Isle of Wight, but his parents moved to Milesbach, Germany, when he was four. He learned the sport at school: 10 of the schools in his area of Bavaria teach luge as part of the curriculum from the age of eight.

The cancellation of the British Championships next month, a competition that for the past 20 years has coincided with a training week for beginners, bodes ill for the sport. Its disappearance would be doubly sad because, after all, it was the British who organised the first competitive tobogganing race back in 1883 in Davos, Switzerland.

Prentice admitted: "We're really going to struggle from here." But he still hopes to hold a beginners' course this year, and believes that the rapid international growth in the nasturbahn (basically, an icy road) could be the salvation of the sport in Britain. One major problem, despite last month's snowfalls, is that we do not have luge or bobsleigh tracks, so there is little chance to participate cheaply. A natural-track course could be set up in Scotland for less than pounds 50,000.

Dyason also believes that wheeled sleds, a training system used by the Germans and Americans, could help to popularise the sport. "We've been having talks with the Scouts about this, and our plans are fairly well advanced," Prentice said. That should do wonders for the image of Scouting.