The luge season leading into Sochi will see Americans look to become Olympic medal contenders, Germans try to retain their dominance, an Italian legend prepare for history and plenty of discussion about a new Olympic event.
The first of nine World Cup stops through January starts at the 1994 Olympic track in Lillehammer, Norway, on Saturday.
Here’s the full World Cup schedule:
Lillehammer, Norway — Nov. 16-17 (no team relay)
Igls, Austria — Nov. 23-24
Winterberg, Germany — Nov. 30-Dec. 1
Whistler, British Columbia — Dec. 6-7
Park City, Utah — Dec. 13-14
Konigssee, Germany — Jan. 4-5
Oberhof, Germany — Jan. 11-12 (no team relay)
Altenberg, Germany — Jan. 18-19
Sigulda, Latvia — Jan. 25-26 (no team relay)
The International Luge Federation (FIL) website is expected to have live timing of World Cup events.
Here are five storylines going into the season:
1. Who will make the U.S. Olympic team?
A nation earns Olympic spots based on World Cup points. The U.S. is expected to qualify the maximum number of sleds (three men, three women, two doubles) into the Olympics.
The final World Cup event of Olympic qualification is the Park City stop Dec. 13-14. USA Luge said it will name its Olympic team following the Park City races.
The team is expected to be made up of the top U.S. sliders in the World Cup standings.
2010 Olympian Chris Mazdzer, Taylor Morris and Joe Mortensen were the top U.S. men last season and made the World Cup roster this fall. Tucker West also qualified for fall World Cups.
Two-time Olympian Erin Hamlin and 2010 Olympian Julia Clukey were the top U.S. women last season and are joined on the World Cup team by Kate Hansen, who tied for third among Americans in the World Cup standings last year with Emily Sweeney. Summer Britcher, not Sweeney, is the fourth woman on the World Cup roster.
Matt Mortensen and Preston Griffall and Jake Herns and Andrew Sherk were the top doubles teams last season and are on the World Cup team, along with Christian Niccum and Jayson Terdiman.
Niccum made the 2010 Olympic team in doubles with Dan Joye and competed in singles at the 2006 Olympics. Griffall made the 2006 Olympic team with Joye.
The U.S. has won four Olympic medals in luge, all in doubles. Its highest finishers at the World Championships in Whistler in February were Mazdzer and Hamlin, who were sixth. Hamlin was the top American at the Sochi World Cup event in March, taking seventh.
Watch out for Clukey, who missed the 2011-12 season after skull surgery, came back to dethrone Hamlin as the U.S. champion and finished a career-best sixth in the World Cup standings last year.
2. Will Germany be challenged?
Not often. Germany won five of a potential eight medals at the 2010 Olympics. It nearly went nine for nine at the World Championships in February, sweeping the men’s event, going one-two in the women’s and doubles and winning the relay.
In last season’s World Cup, Germany won 29 of 33 races, and German sleds finished as high as they possibly could 75 percent of the time.
In men’s, Germany has the reigning Olympic, World and World Cup champion in Felix Loch.
In women’s, Germany has the reigning Olympic champion in Tatjana Hufner and the reigning World and World Cup champion in Natalie Geisenberger.
Germany did not win 2010 Olympic gold in doubles, but Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt won seven of nine World Cup races last season and the World Championship.
With good World Cup form, Germany could very well be in position to sweep the Olympic luge golds for the first time since 1998.
The effects of the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili after a training crash on the day of the 2010 Olympic Opening Ceremony are still being felt.
Russia’s best men’s luger, Albert Demtschenko, said that training runs at the 2014 Olympic track in August produced speeds more than 10 miles per hour slower than Kumaritashvili’s final run in Whistler in 2010.
U.S. lugers and bobsledders have pointed to uphill sections that cause slow downs at the Sanki Sliding Center track.
Lugers from around the world took their final pre-Olympics training runs on the track last week at FIL’s international training week. The track has been called “not difficult” and “very forgiving” by U.S. lugers and that it creates a more even playing field.
“All the really tiny details and little annoying things about our sport are what are going to come into play huge,” Hamlin said this week. “The really nit-picky, very specific lines that we’ll have to hit for driving. … It’s easy to get down, but it’s hard to get down fast.”
The International Luge Federation mandated that any luger ranked below No. 32 for men, No. 24 for women or No. 20 for doubles had to be at Sanki Sliding Center last week to be eligible to compete in the Olympics. They also must have completed at least 10 runs on the track before the end of 2013.
Kumaritashvili was 44th in the 2009-10 World Cup standings and took 20 total runs on the Whistler track during the fall 2009 international training week.
The World Cup tour will not stop in Sochi, but it will visit the Whistler track altered after Kumaritashvili’s death in the first week of December.
4. Armin Zoeggeler’s pursuit of history
They call him “The Cannibal.” The Carabiniere could become the first athlete to win six Olympic medals in an individual event.
Zoeggeler, who turns 40 on Jan. 4, has said that’s his goal. He’s so focused on it that he skipped the World Championships in February to rest and recover in anticipation of this season, at least his 20th on the World Cup tour.
Zoeggeler’s Olympic career is shaped like Freytag’s Pyramid. He won bronze in 1994, silver in 1998, then gold in 2002 and 2006 (his home Games in Torino) and back down to bronze in 2010.
Can he hold on for one last Olympic podium?
The World Cup season may not be the best indicator, as Zoeggeler will clearly be gearing up for a one-off peak performance in February. But he should be challenging for podiums in all of his races.
He’s been fourth in the overall standings the last two World Cup seasons and was fourth at the World Cup stop at the Olympic track last February. He took bronze at the 2012 World Championships and won the 2011 title.
The Olympic medals figure to come down to five men — Zoeggeler, three Germans and the Russian Demtschenko.
If Zoeggeler strikes out in singles, he could get another shot at a medal in a new Olympic event …
5. The team relay
The Olympic luge competition will conclude with a fourth event in 2014, the team relay one day after the doubles at Sanki Sliding Center.
The relay may be a new Olympic event, but it has been contested on the World Cup circuit and at recent World Championships. All of the elite sliders are familiar with it.
The Olympic relay will include one woman, one man and one doubles team from each nation sliding back-to-back-to-back runs. The woman will start, just like an individual race, but when she gets to the finish there will be a touch pad hanging above the track.
She must rise up from her moving sled and touch the pad. That will signal a gate back at the start of the track to open up for the male slider to start his run. The male slider takes his run and hits the finish pad to open the gate for the doubles team, which will take its run and hit the pad to stop the clock for a nation’s total time.
In a sport measured to the thousandth of a second, it will be key for all sliders (save maybe the super-favorite Germans) to not waste time rising from sleds and raising their arms to hit the pad. Easier said than done.
U.S. lugers said sliders have whiffed while trying to time pad touches, which would obviously be devastating to medal hopes (and likely become viral video) come Sochi.
The relay will likely be the U.S.’ best hope for its first Olympic luge medal since 2002.
Germany will, of course, be the favorite. It won all six World Cup relays last season and the World Championship. The rest of the medals were a mixed bag last season.
The U.S., Russia, Canada, Austria and Italy made World Cup podiums. The U.S. placed fifth at the World Championships but missed a medal by .012 of a second.
“It kind of brings a new twist to the sport,” Hamlin said. “I think it makes it a little bit more appealing and adds some excitement. There’s a lot of room for error.”
Here’s video of the relay at last season’s World Cup stop in Lake Placid, N.Y., with commentary from three-time U.S. Olympian Duncan Kennedy.
The relay is scheduled for six of nine World Cups this season but not the opener in Lillehammer this weekend.
Lights out for USA Luge at Olympic sliding center