Luge World Cup delivers thrilling 2022 taster

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Summer Britcher of the United States competes during Women's Singles at the Experience Beijing FIL Luge World Cup in Yanqing, Beijing on Nov. 21, 2021. (Xinhua/Chen Yichen)

With the tricky curves and bumpy ride pushing athletes to their limits, last week's luge World Cup season opener in Yanqing delivered an exhilarating preview of what to expect at next year's Winter Olympics.

Don't blink and make sure your cameras are ready-that was the takeaway for spectators after watching the fastest sport on ice at the National Sliding Center, where the world's top lugers put on a thrilling show at the newly built Olympic track in the northwestern Beijing suburb.

With European powers dominating the podium and the host making an impressive debut, the World Cup series got off to a flying start to build anticipation for next year's Olympics.

The same four events-men's and women's singles, doubles and team relay-will feature at the Games from Feb 5-10.

Spearheaded by women's singles winner Madeleine Egle's flawless run, Austria edged out Germany in the team relay on Sunday night to claim the fourth and final gold up for grabs in Yanqing. Germany bagged the men's singles and doubles the previous day.

Much to the delight of the 300 spectators watching track-side, the host squad, comprising Hu Huilan (women's singles), Fan Duoyao (men's singles) and doubles pair Huang Yebo and Peng Junyue, finished ninth among the 14 teams in the relay in its World Cup debut.

The result was another boost for China's new national program after Fan reached the men's singles final on Saturday.

"I really think it's amazing that the Chinese team is in the team relay and also had some qualifiers in other races at the World Cup. We need new countries to join us," Austria's defending men's singles Olympic champion David Gleirscher said.

"It takes time and repetition of runs to go faster in luge. They need more time and I hope that they will work hard also after the Olympics to get even better."

With eight more Cup legs, all Olympic qualifying meets, to come over the next two months, Team China is aiming to qualify as many athletes as possible for the home Games in order to promote the sport, which involves athletes hurtling down an icy track feet-first at speeds of up to 150 kilometers per hour.

"It's an amazing sport to watch from up close and it easily takes your breath away," Chinese women's luger Hu said.

"It's up to us now to train harder and race more fiercely to try to make it to the Olympics so more fans will be drawn to the sport on the biggest stage."

Newly elected International Luge Federation (FIL) president Einars Fogelis, who was on site to inspect the Olympic preparations, said the international luge community has taken notice of China's emergence.

"I was surprised that you've really built a strong team, young with power. And I would say in our family we now have one more strong nation," he said during a meeting with officials from China's National Winter Sports Administrative Center in Yanqing last week.

China only began building its national program for all three sliding sports-bobsled, skeleton and luge-after Beijing won the right to host the 2022 Games in 2015. Talents have been drafted from other sports such as track and field, gymnastics and cross-country skiing, with the host setting a target of at least being competitive at the home Games.

As the opening leg of the nine-stop World Cup season, the Yanqing meet also doubled as an Olympic test event for the newly built 1.9-kilometer track, the longest in the world, which resembles a zigzagging mythical Chinese dragon on the slopes.

Sixteen challenging curves, including a 370-degree turn, and a tricky ascending section toward the home stretch have seen plenty of world-class racers bump into walls or even flip over in Yanqing-true to the adrenaline-pumping reputation of the sport, often dubbed "Formula One on ice".

"It's a super nice but super different track from all the tracks before," said German luger Toni Eggert after winning the doubles with teammate Sascha Benecken on Saturday.

"What is special is that the track is extremely long, which means that you have to focus and concentrate for a very long time. In addition, the curve pressure is very low and it is difficult to feel the points to steer… it's super interesting," added the world champion.

Women's luger Ashley Farquharson, the starting leg on Team USA's runner-up squad in the relay, said the test event bodes well for thrilling races at next year's Olympics.

"The area we're in is amazing. I love how close to the mountains we are and how the sunrises and sunsets are always lovely," she said.

"The track is very different from most others and requires a different approach, but we're chipping away at it and it's coming along nicely."

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