All sports are kind of silly if you think about them hard enough: Of the five most popular team sports in the U.S., we’ve got one where you can’t use your hands, one where you hit a ball and run in circles, and another that’s played—for some reason—on ice.
Compared to those sports, luge isn’t that silly—it’s the purest distillation of sledding, one of the foundational fun winter activities. In modern luge, extremely muscular men and women, mostly with Germanic last names, fling themselves feet-first down an icy chute at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour while steering by shifting their weight. In service of that goal, these folks wear body stockings and spiky-fingered gloves that allow them to grip and push off from the ice. Lugers obsess over aerodynamics like engineers designing a Mach 2 fighter. As a result, luge is one of the most technically precise and obsessively timed events in the Olympics.
This year’s men’s singles luge competition was quite dramatic, as Felix Loch of Germany, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the prohibitive favorite, went sideways on his last run and fell to fifth place. That allowed American Chris Mazdzer, known on Ringer Slack as “Charismatic Luge Guy,” to win a surprising silver medal. Here’s a video of Charismatic Luge Guy putting an entire slice of pizza in his mouth:
“Wait,” I can hear you thinking, “you said ‘singles luge,’ which implies the existence of doubles luge.”
And you’d be right. Men’s doubles luge is an Olympic sport (the doubles event isn’t in the Olympics on the women’s side). In doubles luge, one person sits on the other person’s lap as they go down the track. Most still images you’ll see of the sport show riders mid-course, like this one which depicts two supine men stacked one on the other and navigating a banked turn, looking like a cross between a bullet and a Big Mac.
When you watch an entire run in doubles luge, the whole sport just starts to look ridiculous. Each doubles team has a tall guy on top, who can see where he’s going, and a short guy for him to sit on. Being able to close your eyes during a terrifying luge run sounds like a blessing, but both sliders have to steer. The tall guy signals to the short guy when to turn by moving his head. Singles lugers fling themselves onto the course from a set of handles at the start of the course—you might assume that doubles lugers might have two sets of handles, but you’d be wrong.
The tall guy ties his armpits to his forearms with bungee cords so the short guy he’s sitting on can yank on them while the tall guy’s pulling on the handles. After the sled launches, and the riders slap the track to pick up speed, both sliders grab the sled and hang on until they get to the bottom of the hill.
Make no mistake, doubles luge is an intense and demanding sport. Just imagine the level of trust and teamwork it takes to let your friend sit on top of you while you steer via body language at the top speed of a Nissan Sentra.
But this is ridiculous. And not for the cheap “Oh, look, it’s two dudes in skintight outfits thrusting” jokes—any sport that looks normal with one person doing it is going to look kind of weird when two people are doing it in sync. Doubles lugers look like a stack of children in a trenchcoat trying to impersonate a singles luger, only the children are 200-pound men named “Tobias” and “Georg.”
But the biggest reason doubles luge looks weird is the number of contrivances—from the straps to the nonverbal communication to the specialized sled—required to get two men down an icy chute at highway speeds. It all seems unnecessary, particularly when there’s a much more comfortable and dignified multi-passenger sled available: the bobsled.
Doubles luge looks like one of those strange sports that Europeans invented, then North Americans improved on and made obsolete, but remains in the Olympics so those Europeans can still win something. That’s the reason the Olympics still have ski jumping, even though freestyle skiing is way better. But the bobsled had been an Olympic event for 40 years before luge made its debut at the Innsbruck Games of 1964.
You can get four people down a hill in a bobsled without anyone sitting on anyone else, or anyone pulling on anyone else’s armpits. Do doubles lugers own cars, or do they make passengers sit on the handlebars of their bicycles? When they travel to meets, do they pack suitcases, or do they just stuff a couple of changes of underwear into a cargo vest?
Doubles luge is the Facebook redesign of sliding sports: There was something that people loved, and then the powers that be just made it weirder and less functional. There are enough doubles lugers to put together a field for an Olympic race—that’s proof of the lengths people will go for a shot at Olympic glory.