Five-Ring Circus

What Do the Two Men Do in Two-Man Luge?

Tobias Arlt and Tobias Wendl celebrate their gold medal in doubles luge during the Sochi Winter Olympics on Feb. 12, 2014.

Photo by Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

Thursday marks the end of the luge competition of the Sochi Games. Farewell, you brave, fast-sliding Germans! But before we move on with our lives, I’d like to answer a question that has puzzled many casual Olympics fans: What do the two men do in the two-man luge?

From home, it’s hard to tell. In the words of NBC’s Mary Carillo, doubles luge looks “like a bar bet gone bad.” The BBC calls it “the man-on-man pileup that is doubles luge.” Insert unoriginal homophobic joke here.

So, what does each luger do? An article on the USA Luge website notes that the “aerodynamics of doubles work best with a taller top man and shorter bottom man,” so the largest athlete sits in front while the smallest one brings up the rear. At the top of the track, the two of them rock the sled back and forth to get it going, with the back rider holding straps attached to the front guy’s arms. During the first second or two of the race, both athletes work in tandem using their hands to push the sled down the track. Once the sled gets going, the luger in the rear handles much of the driving, while the one on top focuses on staying as flat as possible.

In 2010, American doubles luger Mark Grimmette told the New York Times that “the bottom driver acts like a suspension, trying to keep the ride smooth going in and out of the curves.” The luger on top, since he can actually see where the sled is going, signals upcoming curves to the bottom driver via head motions. Then, they work together to make the turn.

Sounds complicated. And also uncomfortable. Why would someone opt to compete in doubles luge when he could just as easily slide down the track by himself? In a video on Time’s website, American doubles luger Brian Martin noted that he liked “the teamwork aspect of doubles over singles. I like working with somebody. When you’re working through an issue on the track, you get to discuss it with somebody. When you win, you get to celebrate with somebody.”

There you have it, the unofficial slogan of doubles luge: sliding on ice, without the loneliness.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.