WHISTLER, Bristish Columbia -- The first two heats of the women's luge took place Monday evening, and the result was not only oddities at the top of the leader board but another race that will be decided by the shadow of tragedy.
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty ImagesAmerican Julia Cluckey is among those frustrated by the new start.
When the International Olympic Committee chose to move the start of the men's race forward to the women's starting line following the death of Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Canadian and American teams were loudest in their contention that the move gave a tremendous advantage to the Germans, who when it comes to luge need about as much help winning as the New York Yankees do in baseball. The Germans are already the best in the world, and starting at a shorter distance limited the opportunity for athletes to compete with the fast German times. Germans Felix Loch and countryman David Moeller finished 1-2 in the men's final. Rival Armin Zoeggeler of Italy took the bronze medal.
In turn, the decision to shave roughly 250 meters off of the women's track frustrated the sliders who took two of their four runs at the Whistler Sliding Center on Monday, especially Americans Erin Hamlin and Julia Clukey. Hamlin, considered the best chance to break the German stronghold on the podium, finished 15th after two combined runs, Clukey 16th.
Natalie Geisenberger of Germany, the second-ranked slider in the world, called the alteration -- which forced sliders to begin the track at Curve 6 -- a "kinder's start," which is German for a "child's start."
Clukey, who prides herself on her strong starts, said the change took her best weapon to compete with the Germans away from her.
The result is a race that sliders and the staffs in their camps say is decided virtually before it starts. By beginning the race at Curve 6, sliders are forced to navigate a hard left turn almost immediately out of the gate. Should their sleds climb the wall too high to the right, the sled hugs the wall, costing precious time. If the slider overcompensates to avoid inching too high up the right wall, they can bump the sled too close to the left wall, in effect playing a game of bumper pool with the side walls before aligning the sled and beginning the run. The key, said Hamlin, is to navigate a nearly perfect 90-degree angle around the first corner coming out of the gate. Otherwise, the sled on the shorter course cannot make up the time.
"I'm disappointed that I started a second slow. You really can't mess up the start curve, which is obviously very frustrating, so I'll try to come back and have two good runs." Clukey said. "It really took the start element out of the race. I don't want to sit here and complain, but when you train for a full year preparing for something, for a race, for the Olympics, and then you show up and everything has changed and that element is taken out it's frustrating."
The cream nevertheless rises to the top, and after two runs, the Germans were in control. Tatjana Huefner, the best female slider in the world, was in first place with a combined time of 1 minute, 23.241 seconds, followed by Nina Reithmayer of Austria and Geisenberger. Three of the top five spots were held by German sliders, and Huefner's second run time of 41.481 seconds was a track record. The final two runs for the gold medal begin Tuesday afternoon, and the Americans are in a dire position.
After her first run, Hamlin was eighth. The Americans were hoping to enter the final two races Tuesday inside of the top 12. Hamlin's two-run time was 1 minute, 24.054 seconds.
"Not how I had initially hoped. My first run, I got the start curve, so that was a step in the right direction. The rest of the run wasn't the greatest. The second run didn't quite get the start curve so that will kill you. I went into both of them the same way and came out a second slower on the second one, so who knows? We know how to get through. We know what we have to do. It's a matter of an inch difference, to be horrible or to be good."