Apres moi, de luge

In the second of his daily dispatches from the Olympic Games at Nagano, Gary Kamiya experiences the madness of the luge.

Published February 10, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Would someone tell the emperor to stop following us around? On the day of our absurdly failed mission to meet our Japanese relative, as we stumbled through the vast bright subterranean arcades of Tokyo Station -- why are there so many kiosks hawking gift-wrapped boxes of candy? -- we came upon a horde of immaculately uniformed policemen cordoning off an area. A couple hundred curious onlookers soon gathered -- a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of people who were streaming through the station at incredible speed. In a few moments, the arrival of His Royal Highness was announced by a scurrying of supernumeraries, a procession of blank-faced men with dark glasses and ear pieces and the stately entrance of an admiral or some kind of military majordomo in a dazzlingly white suit. A policeman who had gone out of his way to show us how to use the phone -- he actually handed my dad some of his own coins, as did a guy next to us who was waiting to use the phone -- abruptly apologized and dashed back to his station. Then the emperor and empress appeared, dressed in elegant (possibly new) clothes, to scattered applause. He waved genially to his subjects, and I waved back until my father whispered, "I don't know if you're supposed to do that." The return of the Ugly Americans! We beat the sheepish retreat of the protocol-impaired. "Don't you think it's a little strange that the emperor takes the subway?" my father said.

The next day, he popped up again. We were taking a bus to the Media Center in Nagano, where I was hoping to find someone drunk enough or mentally incapacitated enough to ignore the fact that I had missed the application deadline by four months and give me a press pass. As we rode along toward my humiliating rejection, we noticed that the curbs were lined for dozens of blocks with people avidly waving Japanese flags. "What's going on?" my father asked the bus driver. "Tenno heika" (emperor), he replied. The emperor's motorcade roared past behind us, on its way to the Opening Ceremonies (where tickets were being scalped for a reported $5,000). Whether the lukewarm veneration displayed in the Tokyo subway or the all-hail-mighty-emperor enthusiasm of the Nagano hordes represents the actual Japanese attitude toward Akihito I am not in a position to say.

My application for Supreme Media Poobahship was received in the most polite fashion by several helpful ladies, who courteously showed me the door. A media pass would have basically given me the Golden Key to the Olympics, instead of the grovel-in-the-snow-you-dog status I now rejoice in. I am seeing these Olympics the way any clown would who showed up with a fistful of tickets to mostly grade-B events -- no figure skating, no snowboarding, etc. -- and a hotel room way out of town. Logistics end up dominating your life when you are a civilian.

Today I went to the second and final run of the men's single luge, held at a venue called "Spiral" on a mountain 40 minutes outside Nagano, while my father rocketed off on the pointy-nosed train to Tokyo ($50 one way) to meet Emiko. (He actually did see her this time; they had a great time and filled in a few blank branches on the skeletal family tree.) It was about 28 degrees up there, so I bought a can of hot Kirin wine -- they're very big on hot canned drinks here, which isn't surprising in the vending-machine capital of the world. I made my way up the course through the crowd, which, like that at most events I've been to, was overwhelmingly Japanese. The organizers cover the snow at these alpine events with straw, but people in street shoes are constantly falling down all around you. I stopped at a spot that looked like it would have a view of two sections of the course.

Luge is a kind of toboggan on which the contestant (or contestants) lies on his back and steers with his feet. It's one of the most dangerous events at the Olympics -- they didn't want to introduce it in 1964, and a rider was in fact killed that year. It's a very weird event to watch in person, because you don't actually see anything except for a half-second blur of a maniac aiming his crotch at ice walls at 80 mph. This event gives a whole new meaning to the expression "balls out." The course itself is a cross between a roller coaster and a frozen irrigation ditch -- a 922-meter-long rectangular tube of ice that snakes its way down and up and around the face of a mountain. At its narrowest, it's only about four feet wide and two feet deep, but on the turns on the steepest part of the course, it's an eight-foot-high vertical wall -- and they use most of that eight feet, too. When you're watching from the middle part of the course, you don't see anything for 20 or 30 seconds. Then you hear a peculiar low rumbling sound up the run, and an instant later a one-man express train blasts by two feet away from you. The force is awe-inspiring.

After the forerunner blasted past me, I dashed to the other side of the path to find him on a lower stretch of the course. It was 100 yards away, and I only had to go a few feet, but by the time I got there, he had already vanished -- that's how fast they go. On television you get the entire view of the run, and sled-mounted cameras are scarily intense, but nothing prepares you for the adrenalin needle of pure speed in the heart of seeing a man shooting past you inches away at freeway speed. Little shrieks were torn from the lips of middle-aged Japanese ladies as they watched.

The favorite, German Georg Hackl, is one of the all-time great lugers -- he's won two gold medals in a row. He entered the second day's runs with a big lead over an Italian, Armin Zoeggeler, and his arch rival, Austrian Markus Prock, whom he beat in Lillehammer by 13 thousandths of a second -- the closest finish in history. There was no suspense this year -- he won in a cakewalk, more than half a second faster than the runner-up, Zoeggeler. But there isn't a whole lot of visual drama to the duel between contestants when you see it live -- they all go by at what appears to be identical speed, and the suspense only comes when you look at the clock after the run to see who's the leader. All in all, one live luge experience was enough for me. Still, if the Winter Games are all about gravity and inertia -- falling, gliding, controlling impersonal force rather than creating it -- luge, with its sheer maniac express-train force, is one of the most hellbent-for-the-bottom events.

Tomorrow is my dad's last day here. We're going to cross our fingers, hope the weather gods and shuttle-bus potentates smile and embark on the two-and-a-half-hour trip from Saku up to the icy slopes of Happo-one in Hakuba, to watch some skiing -- one of the Games' glamour events, the men's combined downhill.

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By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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