How much of a difference can 0.265 seconds make? To most people on earth, it would hardly matter.
But for German luger Felix Loch, it made a world of difference on Sunday at the Alpensia Sliding Centre in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Out of three completed luge runs in the 2018 Winter Olympics, Loch had come out on top in two of them. In the only run where he was not the fastest slider, the six-time world champion was the second quickest, with only 22 milliseconds separating him and the leader.
The 28-year-old German had won the gold at Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014, and was the heavy favourite to tie Georg Hackl’s record as only the second person to win the Olympic luge gold three straight times, at Pyeongchang 2018. And he was well on track for a hat-trick of Olympic golds, after recording times of 47.674, 47.625 and 47.560 seconds in his first three runs.
On the basis of being the overall leader after three runs, the German was slotted to go last in the final medal run on Sunday. When his turn finally came, even though it had started snowing and made conditions a bit difficult, he needed only 47.844 or better to clinch the gold. This was 0.17 seconds slower than his slowest run (47.674) out of the first three heats. In a sport where timings are measured down to 1/1000th of a second, 0.17 seconds seems like eternity.
But fate had other plans.
Loch started well and for three-fourths of that final run he was well on course for gold. Then, it happened. No one but Loch will probably know why it happened but towards the end of the run, the German skid and hit the wall. At speeds of 120 kph-plus, the bump resulted in him zigzagging through the rest of the track till he crossed the finish line – at 48.109 seconds, which was 0.265 seconds slower than the 47.844 he needed for gold.
Not only did he lose the gold but he also failed to record a podium finish. Loch finished fifth. Had he completed his final run even 35 milliseconds faster, he would have won bronze. It was thus no surprise that the German was inconsolable for a few minutes after completing his final run. He sat on his sled with his head buried between his knees – in utter disbelief and misery. He did not budge even when his father and coach Norbert Loch came to comfort him.
And you could understand why a man who had already won two Olympic golds was so distraught. For three minutes out of the 3:10.968 that he was on the track at Pyeongchang, Loch was faultless. His one and only mistake – a very tiny one – cost him a medal.
“It was only a small mistake, but at this point before turn nine [it] had great effects,” Loch said in a press conference later, with a smile. “There was nothing to save.”
The German, though, isn’t going to give up yet. Asked if he was going to retire, he said, “No chance – of course I’ll keep going.”
Loch is determined to have another go at Beijing 2022 but who can foresee what will happen in the next four years? Lugers spend years working on their sled and their technique to shave milliseconds off their runs. They toil to get their angles through corners and lines through chicanes perfect to the tee.
What happened to Loch on Sunday showed just how unforgivable the sport of luge is. It’s not over till the last slider has gone down the track and crossed the finish line. You can have as many perfect runs but there’s no guarantee the next one will go down the same path. In the end, 0.265 seconds was all that separated Loch and a historic third Olympic gold.
Loch’s sorrow was to be joy for the 23-year-old Austrian David Gleirscher, who won the gold ahead of American Chris Mazdzer and German Johannes Ludwig. Gleirscher is only the second Austrian to win the men’s luge gold at the Olympics, after Manfred Schmid at Grenoble 1968.
“I can’t believe it, it’s just a magic moment,” said Gleirscher. “I just brought down a good run and I am just happy that this happened.
“In the first moment I thought Felix is going to be Olympic champion, and then he made a mistake. It’s just magic... I can’t describe this, it’s just unbelievable.”
With inputs from AFP