Mike Rowbottom reports from Nagano on Georg Hackl, the lord of the luge.
As Tony Banks justly observed here yesterday, the luge is not a very dignified sport.
Rather than putting their best foot forward, the prone participants whom the minister for sport witnessed at Iizuna Heights project a different part of their anatomy as they hurtle down a mile-long channel of twisting ice.
You wonder if they ever have nightmares about obstructions on the track. For years, the aerodynamic rubber apparel of the lugers has given rise to jokes about safe sex and flying sausages.
Most of the bodysuits now worn do not contain rubber - reflecting the sport's desire to make its protagonists look less like Martians. But some things in the luge never change. Yesterday Georg Hackl, the moustachioed Bavarian who once took out a writ to prevent his local paper referring to him as the "Speeding White Sausage", secured his third consecutive Olympic gold.
How this not conspicuously powerful 31-year-old soldier continues to defeat all comers on the big occasion is something which baffles even himself.
At the last two Olympics he has finished ahead of the hugely athletic Austrian Markus Prock. Yesterday, despite the fact that he did not record a single World Cup victory this season, he relegated the 6ft 3in reigning World Cup champion, Armin Zoeggeler, of Italy, to the silver.
What made his achievement even more baffling was that each of Hackl's four starts in this event was slower than the Italian's - something which, in theory, should make a crucial difference.
Asked the perennial question again after two more superbly executed runs had extended his first-day lead to just over half a second, Hackl replied with a gentle smile: "I don't know this myself, frankly."
Some contributing factors, at least, seem clear. Hackl is a trained mechanic and metalworker, who devotes many hours to constructing his own luge. Nobody rides on a better sled.
And the rigorously toned physiques of his opponents may actually be a disadvantage. Hackl is said to "gel" effectively as he moves, that is, he reduces wind resistance by relaxing and keeping his muscles loose.
There is an analogy here with sprinting, where - as Linford Christie and other top performers insist - the key is relaxation. No strain, more gain.
After Hackl had come from behind to win the 1994 Olympics by a 100th of a second with his final run, Prock's reported reaction was: "Again Hackl! He is always lucky!"
How does someone always manage to be lucky? "His mental strength is phenomenal," Thomas Schwab, the German coach, said. "It borders on virtuosity."
The American Adam Heidt, who finished ninth, reflected: "It's like a poker game. You don't show anything you have, you just keep smiling. Hackl is good at that. He's the best."
But if Hackl is a mystery, so too is the attraction of watching the luge. The ticket touts operating down by Nagano central station have been doing big business in ice skating, but tickets for the luge are selling at less than face value. You can see why. There is only so much to be drawn from the experience of seeing a man on a toboggan flash past at 130mph.
As with approaching express trains, the lugers are heard before they are seen. The ice rumbles; then they are past, a blur of colour. That's it.
For onlookers - more than 4,000 of whom lined the Spiral track yesterday - the spectacle requires just one jerk of the head. It is like watching an unending sequence of aces at Wimbledon.
The whole thing is only made comprehensible by being broadcast simultaneously from large screens along the route. As the racers pass strategic check points, their split times are frozen on the screen alongside the leading split of the run. The statistics elicit a number of "oohs" and "aahs" around the course. But for the frisson of seeing the lugers pass, it is a sport that could be watched just as well on Ceefax. Not that that diminishes Hackl's performance one jot - nor, indeed, his satisfaction in it.
After the first day's competition here, the Canadian and US teams protested unsuccessfully against the new, aerodynamic, yellow booties Hackl and the other Germans were wearing. Hackl defended them as normal advances in design, worth perhaps 200ths of a second per run.
Yesterday he laughed off another American question about the booties - "they were really special," he said. "Especially the colour."
Asked what were the chances of his continuing to the 2002 Olympics, he screwed up his face and put his finger and thumb together. "Things are more difficult now for me than when I was 20," he said with another grin. "We all grow older. Just look at yourselves."
Before driving down to Nagano town centre for the medal ceremony, Hackl stopped in at a little clubhouse the Germans have established at the site and managed a quick beer. He then emerged, to ringing cheers, with a German sausage sandwich clamped triumphantly in his hand. Perfect.
RESULTS FROM THE XVIII WINTER OLYMPICS
1 Ekaterina Dafovska (Bul) 54min 52.0sec
(1 missed target)
2 Elena Petrova (Ukr) 55:09.8 (1)
3 Ursula Disl (Ger) 55:17.9 (1)
4 P Filipova (Bul) 55:18.1 (1); 5 A Grasic (Sloven) 56:01.0 (4); 6 R Takahashi (Japan) 56:17.4 (3); 7 A Akhatova (Rus) 56:21.7 (1); 8 A Sikveland (Nor) 56:38.7 (3); 9 Yu Shumei (Ch) 56:41.3 (2); 10 M Zellner (Ger) 56:46.3 (4).
Men's first preliminary round: Switzerland 7 Germany 4; Canada 7 Japan 4; Sweden 6 USA 2; Gt Britain 4 Norway 2.
Women's first preliminary round: Norway 2 Sweden 8; Canada 7 USA 6; Germany 5 Denmark 6; Japan 5 Gt Britain 7. Second round-robin: Denmark 9 Great Britain 3; Japan 9 Germany 2; Sweden 8 United States 5; Norway 6 Canada 5.
Men's Group B: Belarus 8 Germany 2; France 5 Japan 2.
Women's preliminary round: Finland 11 Japan 1; USA 7 Sweden 1; Canada 2 China 0.
Men's singles (after final run)
1 Georg Hackl (Ger) 3min 18.436sec
(49.619sec, 49.573, 49.614, 49.630)
2 Armin Zoeggeler (It) 3:18.939
(49.715, 49.690, 49.737, 49.797)
3 Jens Mueller (Ger) 3:19.093
(49.954, 49.700, 49.729, 49.710)
4 M Prock (Aut) 3:19.656; 5 M Kleinheinz (Aut) 3:19.724; 6 W Suckow (US) 3:19.728; 7 G Gleirscher (Aut) 3:19.785; 8 R Rainer (It) 3:19.946; 9 A Heidt (US) 3:20.098; 10 N Huber (It) 3:20.138.
Men's 30km cross-country classical
1 Mika Myllyllae (Fin) 1hr 33min 55.8sec
2 Erling Jevne (Nor) 1:35:27.1
3 Silvio Fauner (It) 1:36:08.5
4 J Isometsae (Fin) 1:36:51.4; 5 F Valbusa (It) 1:37:31.1; 6 H Kirvesniemi (Fin) 1:37:45.9; 7 M Albarello (It) 1:38:07.1; 8 G Di Centa (It) 1:38:14.9; 9 W Legotin (Rus) 1:38:23.7; 10 P Elofsson (Swe) 1:38:47.0.
Men's 500m: First race: 1 H Shimizu (Japan) 35.76sec; 2 K Overland (Can) 35.78; 3 C FitzRandolph (US) 35.81.4; 4 S Bouchard (Can) 35.90; 5 E Wennemars (Neth) 35.96; 6 P Bouchard (Can) 35.96; 7 J Wotherspoon (Can) 36.04; 8 Kim Yoon-man (S Kor) 36.13; 9 Lee Kyu-hyuk (S Kor) 36.14; 10 E Ioriatti (It) 36.30.
Alpine skiing: Women's super G 01:15.
Cross-country: Women's 5-km classic style, 24:00.
Speed skating: Men's 500m, second race, 07:30.
Figure skating: Pairs free programme, 11:00.
Ice hockey: Men's matches, 05:00.
Luge: Women's singles, first run, 05:00.
Curling: Men's second round, inc Britain v Switzerland, 24:00. Third round, inc Britain v Canada, 10:00. Women's third round, inc Britain v Norway, 05:00.
BBC2: 07:45-08:45; 12:30-14:40; 19:00-20:30. BBC1: 23:50-04:30.
Eurosport: 24-hour coverage.
Alpine skiing: Men's combined slalom, first leg, 00:30; second leg, 04:00.
Ski jumping: 90-metre individual (normal hill), 0030.
Freestyle skiing: Men's and women's moguls finals, 03:00.
Speed skating: Women's 3,000m, 06:00.
Ice hockey: Women's matches, 03:00.
Luge: Women's singles, second run, 05:00.
Biathlon: Men's 20km, 04:00
Curling: Men's fourth round, inc Britain v Sweden, 05:00. Women's fourth round, inc. Britain v United States, 24:00. Women's fifth round, inc Britain v Canada, 10:00.
BBC2: 07:45-08:45; 12:30-14:40; 19:00-20:30. BBC1: 23:50-04:30.
Eurosport: 24-hour coverage.Reuse content