German Loch wins Olympic luge gold

WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) — Felix Loch blazed across the finish line, dropped his feet to the track and pulled back on the front runners to brake his speedy sled, spraying ice in every direction. The gangly German punched the frosty air in triumph.

Finally, luge could celebrate.

Loch, gliding safely through the final curve where a fellow Olympian tragically died just two days earlier, easily won his first gold medal on Sunday and brought brief but needed comfort to a sport rocked by criticism that it put performance above protection of its athletes.

The 20-year-old Loch finished his four heats in 3 minutes, 13.085 seconds, well ahead of teammate David Moeller (3:13.764) and Italy's Armin Zoeggeler (3:14.375), the 2002 and 2006 Olympic champion who added a fifth medal to his collection.

Officials, under pressure after 21-year-old Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a practice crash Friday, shortened the track by moving the starts down the mountain. The alteration worked to slow the sleds, but the changes may have tilted the balance of competition.

American Tony Benshoof, who finished eighth, understood the reasoning behind moving the start and respected the decision, but that didn't mean he liked it.

"This was a big letdown," said Benshoof, who spent two years preparing for a steep start at Whistler. "This was my track. It is my track. I excel at high speeds and high risk. Unfortunately, they lowered the start and it's like running the downhill men's ski race down a bunny hill. It's a whole different deal.

"But I'm not making excuses," he added. "We all had the same situation."

Kumaritashvili died after being thrown from his sled at nearly 90 mph and catapulted into an exposed steel beam. The spot is now marked as a memorial with candles and flowers.

His shocking death, just hours before the cauldron was ignited in Vancouver, rattled many of his competitors — and the entire Olympic family — and forced luge officials to consider the unthinkable possibility of canceling the competition. Instead, they decided the games would go on, but only after altering the course so there would be no repeat of the harrowing accident on this beautiful mountaintop.

"For sure, it's not the same like in a normal competition," Moeller said. "We had this bad accident. We had to change the start position. We had to be concentrated and focused. After the circumstances, I think everybody who was on the podium today was a winner and everybody who made it down and made a solid race for himself is a winner."

For Loch, who has trained in BMW's wind tunnels, it didn't matter where he started.

He was fastest, by far.

Born in Koenigssee, his country's sliding capital, the 20-year-old returned Germany to luge's summit by dethroning Zoeggeler, who was attempting to match German luging legend Georg Hackl's record of winning gold in three straight Olympic games.

It's a mark that Loch, the new German wunderkind, may one day surpass.

"It's going to be tough to knock that guy off," Canada's Ian Cockerline said. "If he can maintain this, he could be on top for a long time."

Loch, already a two-time world champion, is the youngest luge Olympic gold medalist in history. Fellow German Dettlef Gunther was 21 when he won gold at the Innsbruck Games in 1976. Hackl, now a coach on the German team, won his first as a 25-year-old at the 1992 Albertville Games.

Of the 13 golds awarded in Olympic luge, nine have gone to Germans.

Loch entered the final run with such a big lead only an accident could stop him from a place on the podium.

"It was so great," he said. "When I was in (turn) 16, I knew it was a good run. It was so great. I think it'll take two hours, three hours, I don't know ... to sink in, it was unbelievable. It's so great to win here."

A very frustrated Benshoof, sliding in pain with three herniated disc in his back, was fourth at Turin in 2006. He missed a medal in Italy by less than one-fifth of a second. The U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in singles luge.

Kumaritashvili's death brought scrutiny to a sport that has craved the spotlight, but has mostly been ignored outside the Olympic rings. The tragedy also renewed concerns that the Whistler Sliding Center track, a $110 million, 16-turn sliding superspeedway designed for these games, was exceedingly fast for all but the top lugers.

There was heated debate. Then, there was death.

Following two investigations, officials moved the men's start down nearly three curves to the women's start and trimmed 600 feet off a track built for record speed. Previously, the men had pushed off down a steep incline, allowing them to reach 60 mph by turn 3, known as "The Wedge."

The alterations served their purpose and significantly slowed the racers, who were routinely clocked at nearly 95 mph during training runs (Loch topped out at 91.6 mph in Saturday's first heat). But the changes also made the lightning-fast track far easier and lessened the possibility that one of the elite drivers would make a mistake and allow someone from the back of the field to move up and swipe a medal.

From the start, Loch was in a class by himself. He posted the fastest times in all four runs, taming a track that had a terrifying reputation long before Friday's crash. He had been bitten by the Whistler beast before. During an international training week in 2008, Loch crashed and tore ligaments in both shoulders, an injury that caused him to miss three World Cup events.

He began the day leading Moeller by two-tenths of a second. Then he more than doubled it after his third run and readied for his gold-medal descent more than one second ahead of Zoeggeler, the nine-time World Cup champ who has hinted at retirement.

As he completed the final, sweeping right turn out of curve 16, Loch passed the steel support pole that ended Kumaritshavili's life. The girder is now covered by a wooden wall, constructed before the track reopened Saturday.

It's now a monument to a luger who never got his chance to race.