04 Feb 2020
After being granted Olympic status in 1954, luge made its official début 10 years later on the Igls ice track at the Innsbruck Games. The first singles titles were awarded on 4 February 1964 to two East German lugers competing for the Unified Team of Germany, Thomas Köhler and Ortrun Enderlein, who paved the way for Germany’s success on the Olympic stage – a success that has continued to this day.
Although travelling by luge has been used as a means of transport since time immemorial, its introduction as a competitive sport can be officially traced back to the winter of 1883, when a race between Austrian, British, German, Swedish and Swiss competitors was held on a 4-km track between Davos and Klosters in Switzerland. The “Internationaler Schlittensportverband” (which translates as the “International Sled Sports Federation”) was founded in 1913, with the first European championships being held the following year. In 1935, after being re-branded the “International Luge Federation”, it was incorporated into the International Bobsleigh and Tobogganing Federation (FIBT). Luge was eventually recognised as an Olympic sport by the IOC in 1954.
Organised by the FIBT, the first luge World Championships were held in Oslo in 1955. Two years later, the International Luge Federation (Fédération Internationale de Luge, or FIL) became an independent body and the sport was included on the Olympic programme. Asince there was no ice track in Squaw Valley, where the 1960 Winter Games were held, the sport only made its début in Innsbruck, with a total of three events: men’s singles, women’s singles and men’s doubles. The competition got underway on the Igls track on 30 January, with the fourth and final runs of the singles deciding the medals on 4 February.
Comfortable win for Enderlein, but Köhler triumphs by mere hundredths of a second
The Unified Team of Germany competing at the 1964 Winter Games included two talented East German lugers, Thomas Köhler (23) and Ortrun Enderlein (20). Köhler had won the world title on the Krynica (Poland) ice track in 1962. Having just left the junior ranks, Ortrun Enderlein had also been crowned East German Champion in 1963. Germany was already churning out an impressive list of luge champions and would continue to do so in the following decades on the European, World and Olympic stages.
The four runs of the two singles competitions were held at the same time. Ortrun Enderlein was in a league of her own in the women’s competition, posting the fastest times on each of her descents and improving each time: 51”13 in the first run, 51”12 in the second run and 50”87 (a track record) in the third run. In the last run, the East German champion “only” achieved a time of 51”55, still the fastest time of the thirteen competitors. Compatriot Isle Geisler, the 1962 and 1963 world champion, did her best to challenge Enderlein, but a mistake in the 4th run cost her dearly. In the end, Ortrun Enderlein won by a large margin, posting a time of 3’24”67, with Geisler nearly three seconds slower (3’27”42), while Austria’s Helene Thurner took bronze, trailing more than four seconds behind Enderlein (3’29”06).
The men’s competition came down to a match between two German lugers, Thomas Köhler and Klaus-Michael Bonsack, who were also partners in the men’s doubles. The two men posted the fastest times in each of the four runs. Köhler took the lead on the first descent (51”27 versus 51”61), only for Bonsack to fight back on the second (51”33 versus 51”53). The third run saw Köhler take a decisive lead (51”50 versus 51”68), before conceding just five hundredths of a second in the final run (52”47 versus 52”42). Behind them, fellow countryman Hank Plenk posted the third fastest time in every run!
The first Olympic luge competition in history thus ended with a podium sweep for Germany. Köhler won gold in 3’26”77, beating Bonsack into second place by 27 hundredths of a second (3’27”04). Plenk finished in a time of 3’30”15.
Köhler and Bonsack were due to take part in the men’s doubles on 5 February, but did not take to the start line. Their day would come. In the first run of the competition, Austrian tandem Josef Feistmantl and Manfred Stengel made a strong start with a time of 50”57, giving them a half-second lead over another home tandem, Reinhold Senn and Helmut Thaler. Although Senn and Thaler came top in the second run, they could only claw back 16 hundredths of a second from Feistmantl and Stengl, who claimed Olympic gold with a time of 1’41”62. Senn and Thaler took silver in 1’41”91, achieving an Austrian double, while Italy’s Walter Außendorfer and Mair Sigisfredo completed the podium in a time of 1’42”87.
The story continues...
Thomas Köhler went on to win a grand slam at the 1967 World Luge Championships in Hammarstrand (Sweden), winning the singles title ahead of Bonsack, before pairing up with him to win the doubles gold. At the 1968 Games in Grenoble, the two partners won the Olympic title in the doubles event, as well as a silver (Köhler) and a bronze (Bonsack) in the singles. Thomas Köhler would later serve as the East German team’s Chef de Mission at the Sarajevo Winter Games in 1984 and the Seoul Summer Games in 1988.
Ortrun Enderlein, the first female Olympic champion in luge, won two world titles, first in Davos (Switzerland) in 1965 and then in Hammarstrand in 1967. Enderlein went on to serve as a member of the East German Olympic Committee from 1970 to 1990.
Köhler and Enderlein paved the way for the German tradition of luge, with Germany continuing to dominate the event at the Olympic Games to this day. Including the East German titles won between 1968 and 1988, the country’s total tally is 31 golds and 66 podiums. The only challenges to Germany’s domination have come from Austrian and Italian lugers (and especially Armin Zöggeler). More recently, German lugers achieved a grand slam at the 2014 Sochi Games (men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, team relay), while Natalie Geisenberger and Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt repeated their success at PyeongChang 2018, winning their fourth gold medals.