Nagano Olympic luge course an uphill battle for all

Luge athletes competing at next month's Winter Games will all be in for an uphill battle whenever they travel along Nagano's serpentine Olympic course.

And it is not only because they will be battling heatedly to turn in the best -- they will literally be sledding uphill along two sections of the Spiral track located in the foothills of Iizuna Kogen, north of downtown Nagano in central Japan.

The athletes will thus get a taste of the first bobsleigh and luge course in the world with two uphill sections. The course which snakes along for 1.7 kilometers has a vertical drop of 114 meters.

And those competitors who raced in the World Cup season finale here last February can attest to the difficulty the unusual slowdown areas can cause.

American Chris Thorpe, who with partner Gordy Sheer clinched the World Cup overall doubles title last winter, called his experience with the uphill sections at the Olympic dress rehearsal last winter, ''very extreme.''

Thorpe and Sheer had to settle for third place in the season-ending meet after having some problems going over the second uphill near the finish, which has an average gradient of nearly 10 %.

The first uphill section, with an average inclination of close to 4%, did not seem to pose much problem for the competitors but the second one, which rises 12 meters over a distance of 123 meters, was a cause for concern.

Organizers say the latter climb reduces speeds by at least 10 km per hour whereas the maximum speed reached here in the World Cup race last February was close to 130 kph.

Lugers lay down face up on a sled set on two runners which are rounded at the front ends and travel feet first down the winding track, steering by applying or reducing pressure on the runners with their calves.

Others who took part in last winter's meet agreed with Thorpe about the difficulty of the course and also concurred that the new type of challenge makes the Spiral all the more exciting and enjoyable.

''There's a lot of turns and it's fast,'' Thorpe said of the course following the race. ''There's some tricky parts but it's a lot of fun,'' he added.

Those who planned the construction of the course, completed in March 1996 to be the first artificial ice track built in Asia, did not put in the uphill sections just to accomplish a first or to give the athletes a hard time.

Nagano Olympic organizers, who have adopted the slogan ''coexistence with nature,'' say they decided to build the track without modifying the topography of the area's natural terrain and disrupting the ecology of the surroundings.

Topsoil removed during construction was kept and returned to the site after the track's completion while some species of plants were transplanted to another area.

An ''indirect refrigeration'' method cuts the amount of ammonia needed to ice the track while a project is also under way to plant some 40,000 trees in the area.

(January 20, 1998)