To most Americans, luge is not just a cult sport, but one that only the truly demented ever master. Few of us, after all, understand the desire to hurtle feet-first down a slope that drops nearly 40 stories at speeds approaching 90 mph.
But to most Europeans, luge is NASCAR. Which makes it easier to understand why the rivalry between Georg Hackl, a 35-year-old German, and Markus Prock, a 37-year-old Austrian, is such a big thing. It's their version of Richard Petty vs. David Pearson.
Fourteen years after Hackl and Prock first locked runners at an Olympics, they were at it again at Utah Olympic Park, possibly for the final time. Also on hand was Armin Zoeggeler, a 28-year-old Italian who has come on in recent years to play the role of occasional spoiler Cale Yarborough.
Zoeggeler, who sneaked between the two for the silver medal at Nagano, was first at the end of Sunday's qualifying runs -- .041 ahead of Hackl, who was .130 ahead of Prock.
Zoeggeler did it by lowering his own track record here on each of his first two runs.
But he had barely reached the bottom of the hill when he said, ''There is one coming behind me who will beat my time.''
Sure enough, Hackl took it down another notch.
''I'm very satisfied with my second run,'' Hackl said. ''But I'm angry at my starting times.''
But there was some consolation.
''I'm glad,'' he said, ''to be ahead of Markus Prock.''
The two first dueled at Calgary in 1988. Prock, who had just won the first of his 10 World Cup titles, came in as the favorite and exited a disappointing 11th. Hackl grabbed the silver, establishing a pattern in the big races that has never quite changed, even after more than a decade as the two most dominant figures in the sport. It left little doubt about who was always going to play the king.
Should Hackl wrap up the gold after the final two runs Monday, he would become the first Winter Games competitor to win the same event in four consecutive Olympics. If he does, Prock probably will need to be wrapped in a straitjacket, hauled off and deposited in a nearby snowbank.
''My goal is still a medal, but I made too many mistakes today,'' Prock said. ''Without them, I would have competed for a gold.''
The history between these two would make a fascinating case study. The deepest Prock has veered into the subject was a few years ago, when he said, ''I really don't like to think about why Hackl has done better in those competitions and why I don't have an Olympic gold medal.
''The more you think about it,'' he added, ''the worse it gets.''
He's not kidding. At the Lillehammer Games in 1994, their four runs covered nearly four miles and by the end they were separated by .013 seconds -- a distance of roughly 13 inches. At the 1997 World Championships, Hackl ventured to Igls, Austria, just months after back surgery and laid down a final run -- that has become the stuff of legend -- to win on Prock's home track.
Hackl's mastery is hardly a mystery, at least in physical terms. Luge is about gravity and aerodynamics, about lying on a sled and quivering from head to toe in sync with the subtle shifts in centrifugal force that take place while sliding down a track.
Sliders call this ''gelling out,'' and that's what Hackl does better than anybody else in the world. He flattens out on the sled, offers no turned-up edges to the wind, and lets the fast air wash over him. As a result, the runners of his sled rarely leave the ice. So, while the rest of the lugers spend countless hours trying to slice hundredths of a second off their start times at the top, Hackl has the uncanny ability to find speed much farther down the track.
So it went again Sunday. In the first run, his start time ranked 26th out of the field of 40. By the bottom of the track, Hackl was second. On his second run, his start time ranked ninth, but he hit the finish line with the track record in tow. Holding onto second place, or even third would make Hackl the first Winter Olympian to medal in the same event in five consecutive Olympics.
''Georg is putting together some great runs,'' said American Adam Heidt, who was in fourth. ''Can he do it? I hope so. History would be made here.''
If so, Hackl can claim to have prepared for it most of his life. Apprenticed to a metalworker at age 16, he learned how to design and build his own sleds before he was out of his teens. That education came in handy when Hackl convinced officials at Porsche, the sports-car manufacturer, to build him a sled.
In one of his classic psych jobs, he introduced the sled at the opening of the World Cup season last November in Calgary, set a track record and immediately stuffed the sled back inside its green wrap. Hackl made his second run with an old model. Afterward, not even his coach was allowed a second look at the new sled.
As the late-afternoon sun began edging over the crest of the Wasatch Mountains, the Porsche sled came out of its wrap for only the second time in a competitive event. In what might prove to be just as important an accommodation, the German luge federation rented a house a few hundred yards from the start line. They also made sure the refrigerator was stocked with German beer so Hackl wouldn't have to settle for the watered-down local variety.
''I know Utah beer very well,'' Hackl said, grinning. ''We've been here for vacation and Utah beer is, uh, not the worst.''
Sounds like a celebration is on tap.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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