It’s certainly some record. Armin Zöggeler competed in luge at every Winter Games edition from 1994 to 2014: Lillehammer, Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver and Sochi. And he took home a medal from each, including two golds. On 9 February 2014, at the Sanki Sliding Centre, the 40-year-old won bronze to make history with his sixth consecutive medal.
The luge competition at the Sanki Sliding Centre on 8 and 9 February 2014 saw 39 athletes complete four runs of the track, but only three men were ever in contention for a podium finish, clocking the three fastest times on each run. The dominant Felix Loch from Germany, the defending champion, ultimately got the measure of Albert Demchenko after the Russian was quickest over the first run, with Loch finishing ahead of Demchenko on the subsequent three runs. Placing behind them each time was Armin Zöggeler, 40, the legendary Italian luger.
There was a bronze medal waiting for him at the end of it all, to add to his haul of bronze at Lillehammer 1994, silver at Nagano 1998, gold at both Salt Lake City 2002 and Turin 2006, the latter in front of a home crowd, and bronze at Vancouver 2010. A total of six podium finishes in the same discipline at six Olympic Winter Games editions – a feat unique in the history of the Winter Olympics.
“I’m really happy to have won a sixth consecutive Olympic medal,” said Zöggeler at the end of the Sochi Games. “It’s been an incredible experience, really unforgettable. These Games have been magnificent for us athletes, really well organised.” Zöggeler’s final Olympic race was a new event, the team relay, in which Italy finished fifth. “I really liked this competition,” he added.
The man from Merano in Trentino-Alto Adige was also selected to be Italy’s flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony of these Games in 2014. “It’s an honour and a source of great pride and motivation; I’ll try to live up to the task,” said Zöggeler in October 2013, on learning from Italian National Olympic Committee President Giovanni Malagò that he had been chosen to lead his country’s delegation into Sochi’s Olympic Stadium. It was a case of second time lucky for Zöggeler, who was originally earmarked to be Italy’s flagbearer at Vancouver 2010, but had to decline due to the scheduling of the luge event the day after the Opening Ceremony. “It’s a new milestone in my career,” he said proudly. He would cap off this career with another medal in Sochi, before announcing that these would be his final Games.
A champion’s road to glory
The Italian first made his mark on his sport as a teenager. “I come from a long line of sportsmen,” he explained. “I took up luge when I was very young, but I never imagined that it would become my passion. At 14, I was already competing on artificial tracks.” Born on 4 January 1974, Zöggeler grew up in a small mountain village and recalls how he enjoyed his first luge ride on the snow-covered streets on his way to school one morning.
In 1988, Zöggeler was crowned world junior champion, claiming what would prove to be the first of many honours. A quarter of a century later, the man known as “the Cannibal” had amassed more silverware than any other Italian winter sports athlete, and is the most decorated luger in history. He topped the FIL World Cup standings 10 times, winning 55 races in the process, and secured 16 FIL World Championship medals, including six golds, in addition to his extraordinary haul at the Olympic Winter Games.
At the age of 20, the Italian made his Olympic debut, at Lillehammer 1994. He came away with a bronze medal, joining two of luge’s legends, Germany’s Georg Hackl and Austria’s Marcus Prock, on the podium. Four years later, at the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano in 1998, Zöggeler underlined his status as a rising force in the discipline, taking silver behind Hackl. In February 2002, at the Salt Lake City Games, he shared the podium with Hackl and Prock once again, but this time it was he who occupied the top step.
In 2006, as the Games travelled to Turin in his native Italy, Zöggeler revelled in the chance to compete in front of a home crowd on the familiar Cesana Pariol track. He soon lived up to his billing as favourite, blitzing the first two runs. However, after finishing second on the third run, he then diced with disaster on the final run, posting just the fifth fastest time. But his overall lead was large enough for him to retain top spot and claim a second consecutive gold, just 0.11 seconds ahead of Russia’s Demchenko, and 0.357 seconds ahead of Mārtiņš Rubenis of Latvia.
“I have to say that luge wasn’t a very well-known sport in Italy, but things really changed at the Turin Games,” said Zöggeler, who lived up to weighty expectations in 2006. In defying the pressure to claim gold on home ice, he became both a hero and an inspiration to a generation of lugers from his region. At the Vancouver Winter Games, the Cannibal, aged 36, found himself up against the new generation of German luge talent in the guise of Loch and David Möller, and he had to settle for bronze as he won his fifth consecutive medal.
Role model for the next generation
“Over the years, I’ve managed to continuously improve my level of performance – my house is full of medals,” said Zöggeler in 2013 before Sochi. “But even after all this success, one thing’s remained the same since I was very young: the overwhelming joy of topping the podium. That thought alone gives me a huge amount of motivation, and that in turn makes me want to keep competing for a little while longer.” That “little while longer” eventually culminated on 9 February 2014 with a moment that, by this point, he knew inside out – stepping onto the podium as the Italian flag was hoisted aloft behind him.
Zöggeler has remained in the world of luge since he retired from the sport, and currently serves as the technical director of the national team. His exploits inspired the next generation of Italian lugers, who have embraced his legacy and look to him as a role model. This new wave of athletes includes Lukas Gufler and Felix Schwarz, who won gold in the doubles at the Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Lillehammer 2016; Lukas’s younger brother, Alex Gufler, who finished fifth at the Winter YOG Lausanne 2020; and 18-year-old Nina Zöggeler, Armin’s own daughter, who aspires to follow in her father’s footsteps.