Fearless luger Dettlef Günther became the sport’s youngest gold medallist in Olympic history when he took the men’s individual title at the 1976 Winter Games.
The East German athlete, just 21, completed the hair-raising course at the Olympic Sliding Centre in 3:27.688 – contributing to his country’s clean sweep of luge and bobsleigh titles.
His victory in Igls, southeast of Innsbruck, was testament not just to his own bravery and skill, but also to the intense preparations the East Germany squad made ahead of the Games. During testing of the run at the Sliding Centre in 1975, the team set up cameras and timers to analyse the fastest routes through the straights and curves.
In the individual competition, luge sleds – similar to toboggans – must weigh no more than 23kg, or 27kg for a team of two. Competitors – known as sliders – hurtle down the course feet first and use only their legs and shoulders to guide the toboggan.
This thrilling – and dangerous – sport saw its first organised race held in 1883 in Davos, Switzerland, and the first world championship was held 72 years later in 1955. By the 1960s the sport was dominated by East Germany, Austria and the Soviet Union.
Günther –whose unusually spelled Christian name has been attributed to a clerical error when his birth was registered – began his international career by winning the 1973 European Youth Championships. Two years later he repeated this success at the European Senior Championships. Then came his well-earned gold medal in Austria.
East Germany’s preparations paid off, but not quite in the way the team expected. Günther’s victory was a shock, as his much more experienced teammate Hans Rinn was expected to triumph. Instead, Rinn had to settle for third place.
The beefy electrician told reporters after his triumph on the artificial ice track: “You’ve just got to keep your nerve. With the race spread over four days, the one who holds on to his nerves best is the one who keeps the title.”
Günther later won the gold medal in the men’s singles event at the 1979 FIL World Luge Championships in Königssee, West Germany, and took silver in the European competition that year.
Though he was favourite to win gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, winning the first two runs, he crashed at the end of the third, losing three seconds to finish the contest in fourth place.
However, he was able to savour his record as the youngest luge gold medallist in Games history for a further 30 years – only losing it in 2010 when Germany’s Felix Loch won the men’s singles luge title in Vancouver, aged 20. He made a living as a luge coach until German re-unification, before working in the nickel industry.