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Alex Gough of Calgary is expected to be part of Canada's mixed relay team in luge at the Sochi Games. (Tobias Hase/The Associated Press)
Alex Gough of Calgary is expected to be part of Canada's mixed relay team in luge at the Sochi Games. (Tobias Hase/The Associated Press)

2014 Winter Olympics

Team dynamics slide into an individual sport Add to ...

The newest event in the Winter Olympics luge lineup puts a unique spin on the traditional idea of a relay.

In an effort to make luge more exciting for athletes and spectators alike, Games organizers have added the team relay event, a mixed-gender competition that showcases combined team talent and adds an adrenalin-pumping group event to a typically individual sport.

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Each of the 12 countries competing in the relay gets three sleds this year at the Sochi Games – a woman, a man, and a doubles team. The clock ticks as each of the three sleds makes a run down the icy track one right after another, each hitting a touch-sensitive pad at the finish line before the next can start. The team with the lowest combined time wins the gold medal.

It’s been 50 years since luge was added to the Olympic program at the 1964 Innsbruck Games, and until now, the lineup of disciplines has remained the same – singles events for men and women and a doubles event. The team relay has been a fan favourite in other international luge competitions, and has been added as the final luge event of the 2014 Olympics on Feb. 13 at the new state-of-the-art Sanki Sliding Center in the mountains of Rzhanaya Polyana, 60 kilometres northeast of Sochi on a track running 1,384 metres long, with 16 winding curves.

In one of the most fast, extreme sports on the Olympic program, lugers paddle with their hands to accelerate the tiny sled out of the gate, then lie back face up with legs stretched out in front and race at blazing speeds of up to 135 kilometres an hour. With no brakes, athletes rely on their reflexes and body movements for steering, and unlike bobsleigh they have no protection should they hit a wall.

So imagine the challenge of synchronizing a seamless transition between the three consecutive sleds in a team luge event while trying to shave every split second off the clock. Each luger crossing the finish line at the bottom of the track must sit up at precisely the right moment and hit a touch-sensitive pad overhead, which opens the start gate for the next teammate waiting at the top. An over-anxious luger on the starting line who breaks through the gate before it opens will disqualify his or her team. Canada’s doubles sled jumped the gate too soon in a relay event this season.

“Nothing is guaranteed in this race,” said Wolfgang Staudinger, head coach of the Canadian luge team. “That’s what makes this event so exciting. With three sleds, there is lots of room for error, but our results show we are definitely in the game.”

Canada has never won an Olympic medal in any luge discipline, but has made serious strides in the sport since the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and appears poised to make history in Sochi. Canada’s relay team of Calgarians Alex Gough, Sam Edney, Justin Snith and Tristan Walker of Cochrane, Alta., has enjoyed great success in this event already. It has made the podium in team relay at world championships, where the event made its debut in 2008. Canada has also earned several team relay medals at World Cup competitions, including a silver medal last Sunday in Konigssee, Germany, as part of a three-medal haul for Canuck lugers, the most successful weekend in the history of the Canadian luge program.

“This is the strongest team of medal contenders the nation has ever assembled in the sport of luge,” said Tim Farstad, executive director of the Canadian Luge Association. “Over the last four years, this group has demonstrated they can perform under the most intense pressure, and win medals at the highest level.”

Other world powers in the relay are Italy, Russia, Austria, the United States and gold-medal favourite Germany, which has won 18 team relay races since the 2010-11 season when the event was introduced on the World Cup circuit. Germans have won 70 of the 117 overall Olympic medals awarded in luge since the sport’s inclusion. Olympic medal projections expert Infostrada predicts Germany to win gold in the team relay, Canada silver and Italy bronze.

“The competition is an exciting enhancement to the existing forms of competition,” said Thomas Schwab, a 1988 Olympic bronze medalist and now director of the German Bobsleigh and Luge Federation. “I can very well imagine that we have taken on a pioneering role and that other winter sports will follow suit.”

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In the team relay event, one man, one woman and a doubles pair form a team. All competitors slide from the women's/doubles start.

1. The female slider goes first and starts the clock by passing the start beam. As she crosses the finish line, she hits a touchpad suspended above the track.

2. The touchpad releases a gate at the start handles where the waiting male athlete tries to react as quickly as possible to start his run down the track.

3. The doubles team waits in place behind gate during the individual male run.

4. The individual man hits the sensor pad at the finish of his run...

5. ...which triggers the gate to open and the doubles team pushes of.

The timing clock does not stop between runs, making the reaction time of the male slider and the double team sliders a key component.

Canada's medal hopefuls in the luge team relay event - Alex Gough, Sam Edney, Tristan Walker and Justin Snith - all hail from Alberta.
GRAPHICS BY TRISH MCALASTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL