RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
At the Winter Olympics, the men's singles luge competition wrapped up last night. That's the sport where athletes lie on their backs, feet first, on a tiny sled and slide down an ice track at speeds of over 80 miles an hour. It looks dangerous and it is. But even athletes with little chance of winning gold keep taking the risk to compete. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF LUGE)
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Chris Mazdzer is the top American man in the sport of luge, reaching speeds of 85 miles an hour as he slides down the track with near perfect control of his sled.
CHRIS MAZDZER: Everyone's like, oh, are you going to break into the medals? I'm like, well, there's a German kid who wins every World Championships and Olympics and the other two guys have the most experience on the hill. So my chances are nil. Unfortunately, that's how it goes in the sport of luge.
KEITH: This was Mazdzer heading into his final run, fully aware of reality. He came in 13th place. Behind him, a field of athletes from countries with even less of a chance of winning, or even being competitive. Like Alexander Ferlazzo, an 18-year-old from Townsville, Australia.
ALEXANDER FERLAZZO: It's not like a slippery slide. That's for sure.
KEITH: Ferlazzo spends a lot of time trying to explain his sport to his fellow Australians. He's the first Australian man to compete in Olympic luge since 1994 and has been known to practice on the street, with his mom looking out for cars.
FERLAZZO: She just kind of jumps on the road and says stop, stop, there's a luge coming. And I can see down the bottom anyway. If I can see cars coming, I'll brake and get off the road.
KEITH: When Ferlazzo first got into the sport, he looked it up on YouTube and the first videos that came up were a bunch of terrible crashes. Four years ago in Vancouver, an athlete from the nation of Georgia died during a training run. Three uphill sections were added to the course in Sochi as a result. But these athletes don't like to talk about the danger, despite being asked about it repeatedly.
For Ferlazzo, the risk was part of attraction. And if you think Australia is an obscure country to field a luge slider, look another three thousand miles into the middle of the Pacific.
BRUNO BANANI: My name is Bruno Banani, and I'm from Tonga, the only winter sport athlete of Tonga.
KEITH: Banani got into luge through an elaborate PR stunt. There were auditions in his tiny Pacific island nation five years ago, and since then he's been training in Germany. Bruno Banani is the name of a German underwear company. The luge athlete legally changed his name. And last night he came in 32nd in a field of 39.
BANANI: Before I came here to Sochi, I was looking back; the last five years were the most hard years of my life. I already wanted - or thinking of stop. But the moment I walk in the opening ceremony and the people cheer and I think I have a second for it. So maybe I am going to be back again.
KEITH: That's what happened to Shiva Keshavan. This is the Indian luge slider's fifth Olympics. He had hoped to finish in the top 20, but heading into his final run he knew that would be impossible.
SHIVA KESHAVAN: I had nothing to lose, really, so I just let the sled go and just improvised on the way down. I mean I let my instincts do the work and, you know, it worked out fine.
KEITH: He may have a point with that nothing to lose thing. These athletes who are here just trying to do their best seem to be having a lot of fun. Keshavan ended up in 37th place.
KESHAVAN: I started this, you know, thinking that, you know, it was just something for me, but now I've realized that, you know, I've started a whole trend for winter sports in India. There are a lot of kids coming up, and so, you know, I wish that something happens.
KEITH: Think about it this way - after four runs he was only nine seconds slower than the gold medalist, Felix Loch from Germany. It's an eternity in luge, but really not all that much time to the rest of us. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Sochi.
MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.