If You Build It, They Will Come
Of the 44 Olympic gold medals to have been awarded in luge, only one has been won by a non-German speaker, Vera Zozula of the Soviet Union. And it is extremely unlikely that Russian is her first language either. She hails from Talsi province, the most Latvian part of Latvia, where 95% state that the country’s national language is their mother tongue.
Zozula was equally fluent in the language of luge. Her Olympic debut was in 1976, when the first Soviet luge team appeared. Of the six members of that team, five were Latvian.
Her title came in 1980 and, until the break-up of the Soviet Union, Latvians continued to dominate its luge and bobsleigh teams. As discussed last week, an important part of the reason for this was the existence of a sliding track in the Latvian town of Sigulda (above).
When Sigulda became part of an independent nation, Russian sliding ran out of track. It crashed and remained unconscious for several years. But it recovered in typical fashion, throwing vast sums of money at the problem. Russia built not one, but two new tracks, one at Paramonovo near Moscow, and another at Sochi, for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The investment paid dividends and had a lubricating effect on sliding in Russia. In 2014, it won two gold medals in bobsleigh (below), and one in skeleton, and two silvers in luge.
But there is a chink in the ice, a curious gap in the story, because the Sigulda track was not completed until 1986. Latvia’s early successes, including Zozula’s golden moment, were all achieved without it. The way in which it happened is a truly remarkable tale.
Shall I Carve?
The Soviet Union was just as prepared as its capitalist Russian counterpart, to dedicate state funding to state-of-the-art technology. But constructing a track would take time.
The enthusiastic and impatient people of Latvia were unwilling to wait. They decided to create their own, not a modern artificially-refrigerated track, but a natural track carved out of the snow. They built it in the town of Cesis, less than 25 miles away from Sigulda.
The keenness of the locals to get their hands cold explains why Sigulda was selected to host the track. As will become clear, the region’s bobsleigh history goes back more than a century. Before carving the track, it had already carved itself a niche in sliding sports.
Natural Born Lugers
Practising on a natural track is less beneficial for aspiring Olympians. Natural track luge is a non-Olympic specialism of its own, with a quite different set of successful athletes.
This makes the Zozula’s victory all the more impressive. She will surely lose her record as the only non-German-speaking winner – a US luger could even claim gold in 2018 – but, as countries become willing to spend more and more, it will only get harder to train for gold predominantly on a natural track. This is a feat which might never be emulated.
Next week: The role of randomness in sporting history in the Bahamas, China and Latvia