Luge is one of the oldest winter sports which at its grass roots level of tobogganing down a snowy hillside has mass participation in the UK, indeed the Great Britain Luge Association (GBLA) came out of the British Racing Tobogganing Association. The first recorded sled races took place in Norway sometime during the 15th century. The sport of luge, as with the other ice sliding sports the skeleton and the bobsleigh, originated in St Moritz in the mid-to-late 19th century. The first organised meeting of the sport took place in 1883 in Switzerland. In 1913, the Internationale Schlittensportverband or International Sled Sports Federation was founded in Germany. This body governed the sport until 1935, when it was incorporated in the Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing (FIBT, International Bobsleigh and Tobogganing Federation). the first Luge World Championships were held in Oslo (Norway) in 1955. In 1957 Luge broke away from the FIBT to form the Federation International de Luge de Course (FIL, International Luge Federation) and the sport was for the first time included in the Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck (Austria) 1964.
There are 2 main winter sport disciplines for Luge, Kuntsbahn (Artificial Track) and Naturbahn (Natural Track). Kuntsbahn with men’s singles, women’s singles and doubles, is currently on the Winter Olympic Programme, however the FIL remains committed to have Naturbahn added to the programme.
Artificial luge tracks have specially designed and constructed banked curves plus walled in straights and due to the costs in construction are shared with the other 2 ice sliding sports, however more modern tracks tend to have a luge specific section which joins the main track near the top. Most tracks are artificially refrigerated, but artificial tracks without artificial cooling also exist (for example, in St Moritz). Tracks are cut and the surfaces prepared to be make them very smooth.
The athletes ride in a flat, aerodynamic feet first position on the sled, keeping their heads low to minimize air resistance. Steering the sled is mainly achieved through the calves by applying pressure on the runners—right calf to turn left, left calf to turn right. It takes a precise mix of shifting body weight, applying pressure with calves and rolling the shoulders. There are also handles for minor adjustments. A successful luger maintains complete concentration and relaxation on the sled while traveling at high speeds. Most lugers “visualize” the course in their minds before sliding. Fastest times result from following the perfect “line” down the track in the most aerodynamic position. Any slight error, such as a brush of the wall, costs time. Track conditions are also important. Softer ice tends to slow speeds, while harder ice tends to lead to faster times. Lugers race at speeds averaging 120–145 km/h (75–90 mph) around high banked curves while experiencing a centripetal acceleration of up to 5g. Men’s Singles have their start locations near where the bobsleigh and skeleton competitors start at most tracks, whilst the Doubles and Women’s Singles competition have their starthouse located further down the track. Artificial track luge is the fastest and most agile sledding sport.
Racing sleds weigh 21–25 kilograms for singles and 25–30 kilograms (55–66 lb) for doubles. Lugers compete against a timer and are timed to a thousandth of a second, making luge one of the most precisely timed sports in the world. Athletes may wear additional lead which helps them to maintain momentum whilst travelling down the track. The amount of lead worn is regulated and based on an athletes body weight.
Natural tracks are adapted from existing mountain roads and paths. Artificially banked curves are not permitted. The track’s surface must be horizontal. They are naturally iced. Tracks can get rough from the braking and steering action. Athletes use a steering rein and drag their hands and use their legs in order to drive around the tight flat corners. Braking is often required in front of curves and is accomplished by the use of spikes built on the bottom of the shoes.
Most of the tracks are situated in Austria and Italy with others in Germany, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, Canada and the US. At approximately half-mile (0.8 km) in length natural tracks are shorter than their artificial counterparts. World Championships have been held since 1979 whilst European Championships were first held in 1970.
The remit of the GBLA is to promote and support the participation in both Kuntsbahn and Naturbahn in major luge events. A national championships is arranged each year, where possible alongside the British Bobsleigh Championships. Introduction weeks are also arranged through the Armed services luge associations. The National Kuntsbahn team is affiliated to the University of Bath which is where the UK based athletes train during the summer months.