Missing luge equipment impacted Beijing Olympics qualification system

BEIJING — You’ll have to forgive Jonny Gustafson if he hugged his sled tight when he arrived here last week. The last time he passed through Beijing airport, authorities seized 33 boxes of luge equipment from several different countries, including the box that contained Gustafson’s sled.

He can laugh about it now. “It was an experience, for sure,” he says. But in late November, contemplating the possibility of trying to qualify for the Olympics without his gear, Gustafson tried not to panic.

After the first World Cup of the season, at the Olympic track in Yanqing, the luge riders began to hear rumors at the airport that not all of their luggage had arrived on the plane that the International Luge Federation ( FIL) had chartered to transport them to the events. . Shortly after they landed in Sochi, Russia, Gustafson learned that his sled would not be joining him. There wouldn’t be anything else he kept with him either – uniforms, coaches’ equipment, tools, spares, “anything else we can put in there,” he said. .

He tried to get answers from FIL. “It didn’t go very far,” he laughs. It turned out that FIL was trying to get answers from the Chinese, both on behalf of the athletes and on behalf of the organization: among the boxes seized was one containing a random number generator, which FIL used to determine which athletes will be selected for inspection checks.

“For a long time we weren’t sure why these boxes were classified as boxes containing contraband,” said FIL President Christoph Schweiger. Eventually, the Chinese authorities sent them photos of products such as acetone, which are not allowed in checked baggage in large quantities. But, he added, authorities have also identified items such as massage oil, which is permitted, and tools with batteries removed, which is the proper procedure for storing them.

“No one could really explain to us why these boxes were kept in Beijing,” he said. He called the incident a “disaster”.

In the meantime, the athletes concerned were scrambling to cobble together replacement equipment. US assistant coach Ľubomír Mick contacted a coach from the Russian team who, 12 hours before the start of the competition, lent Gustafson a sled. It was too big for him, but “I wasn’t going to nitpick,” he said. He borrowed the rest of the equipment from his fellow Americans: a helmet from Sean Hollander, a suit from Tucker West, neck warmers from Brittney Arndt, slippers and spiked gloves from others. They all ran at different times, so they could switch gear back and forth, but the overlap meant he couldn’t train with his teammates. Instead, he joined the Russians; they joked that he was becoming a member of their team.

Two weeks later, with the sleds still not back with their skates and the World Cup circuit moved to Germany, Gustafson had to borrow a German sled. This one was too small, which made him a sort of Goldilocks with a red beard. And he was one of the luckiest: the Australian Alexander Ferlazzo, among others, could not run at all.

(China rolled out the gear after a few days, but the boxes are big – about five feet by two feet by two feet – and there are very few flights from Beijing to central Europe at the moment, so it has took a while for WIRE to find cargo space to get them out.)

The fallout was chaotic enough for the FIL to change its Olympic qualification procedure: instead of counting the first seven World Cup events for qualification in Beijing, teams were allowed to drop their three worst results.

For Gustafson, who will compete Saturday and Sunday night here, that didn’t actually include his races on borrowed equipment. He finished 24th, 14th, 19th and 21st on ill-fitting sleds; in his own run in the other three qualifying he placed 25th, 21st and 28th. Some equipment, such as radios, has been held back until January.

“It’s a great experience to say, hey, I had to go to these three World Cups with totally new equipment from different countries with five runs before racing each week,” he said. “Absolutely stressful, but it’s pretty cool that it worked out at least a bit, and I have that experience under my belt. Now [I can tell myself] that, OK, whatever I’m slipping on. I can make it work.

Athletes got their gear back, and because of the change in policy, Schweiger says the chaos hasn’t affected anyone’s Olympic hopes. But no one ever got any answers. Schweiger speculates that Chinese authorities may not have been able to read the tags on some of the items in the luggage and therefore automatically classified them as prohibited. He points out that there were indeed prohibited objects in the boxes seized. But usually, he says, customs officers just throw those products away and send the boxes.

“We’ve been running Luge World Cup races all over the world — world championships, continental championships — since 1977,” he says. “This had never happened before.”

All the equipment has entered China for the Olympics. Now all you have to do is get out.

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