"The luge run gives me such an adrenaline rush that my eyes are flicking like a tape recorder on fast-forward. It's often terrorizing, always exhilarating." -- John Fee, U.S. Olympic judge team
The emotional thread that runs through the Winter Olympics is a sense of danger as penetrating, yet as invigorating, as frozen mountain air.
The real chill factor here -- especially for lugers, downhill racers, ski jumpers and bobsledders -- is the cold breath on the neck of palpably close death.
At the Summer Olympics, the human body must achieve its speed and perform its twists without aids. The potential for havoc is limited. Here, skis and skates are everywhere. The chance for wreckage increases as the tools for speed improve.
The most frightening sound at the Winter Olympics is the squawking voice on a walkie-talkie crying in code, "We got an 81 here."
An "81" means "disaster."
A ski jumper leaves his ramp for the open sky at 60 miles per hour. The luger on his tiny sled hits 70 mph. The downhiller plummets 2,500 feet in 2 minutes, reaching 80 mph. And the 500-pound bobsled goes more than 90 mph.
Other sports have a history of injury. These four, which form much of the heart of the Olympics, have a history of death. In these danger games, the thrillseekers sometimes call a broken leg or a fractured skull "an escape." To calibrate the degree of daredeviltry, or tabulate the per-capita pain, for these sports is impossible.
For instance, the United States two best downhill skiers -- Andy Mill and Cindy Nelson -- have had, between them, six knee operations, two broken legs, two broken arms, a dislocated hip, a fractured arm and a broken shoulder.
The coach of the U.S. bobsled team, Gary Sheffield, calls his sport "the champagne of thrills." Yet Scheffiedl once fractured his skull in seven places, and inside a month, had two friends killed in crashes.
Ski jumpers insist that they have little fear of flying because their sport, which looks like the divinest madness, is, in fact, the safest of the four. After all, jumpers did not even have to wear headgear for years until five deaths made it mandatory.
Nevertheless, it is probably the luge that is the most dangerous Olympic sport as well as the most terrifying -- either to participate in, or simply to watch.
The 50-pound Olympic luge is little more than the toy sled that a child might find under a Christmas tree. It has no brake, no protection.
"We prove that any kid can ride his Flexible Flyer (sled) to the Olympics," said Jeff Tucker of the U.S. team.
The luge entered the Olympics in 1964, but, before a regulation run had been made, one luger had been killed in practice and two Americans barely had missed death.
"Lugers are usually hurt by trees," said an Olympic course official here. "They fly off the track at 70 mph and disappear into the woods. You listen, then start looking."
What is most interesting is not the difference between these various forms of courting fear and seeking thrills, but in the striking similarities of personality and temperament among the participants.
Socrates called courage the principal virtue because without it none of the other virtues could express themselves. One man who expresses himself with courage is John Fee, 28, senior member of the U.S. luge team.
Fee has three passions, none of which he fully understands, and none of which seem to be linked with the others. He is an arist who has spent years making stained glass windows for churches. He is a fisherman who battles the 35-foot waves and gale force winds of the Bering Sea to fish for king crab off the Alaskan coast. And he is the United States' best hope for a top 10 luger here.
This combination of qualities -- artist, explorer, sportsman -- somehow seems to illuminate the confusing character of the daredevils in the Olympics to us.
"When you see the luge run at night, it is awesome and terrifying," said Fee. "I feel drawn toward it -- the brilliant lights, the sense that you are aiming a rifle down the mountainbut that you are the bullet.
"At the beginning of the season, the first 20 runs, you seem to be going incredibly fast. But after 200 runs, it doesn't seem so bad.
"Instead of blinding speed, you get a sense of quietness and controlled speed. You're just there by yourself, feeling every bump in the ice, getting this exhilaration of feeling totally alive. It's an extreme joy.
"I tend to lift my head too high because I want to see around me. It's a blur, but you want to experience it."
Nonetheless, Fee never forgets the ever real danger of his event. Lugers seldom venture into the spectators' area just an arm's length from the chute where the sledders fly past. But Fee did this week.When the first mad luger screamed by, Fee said, stunned, "My God, are we going that fast?
"You feel many things as you stand at the top," said Fee. "Especially at night the eerieness gets to you and you feel apprehensive. You know that in the luge when you make a mistake, there is seldom time to make a correction. i
"By the time you realize that you have a problem, it's too late to do anything about it. You don't even realize if you're hurt or not until you stop flipping and sliding and you do an inventory of your body."
Fee is far more candid about his fears than most Olympian jumpers, fliers and sliders because the luge run is actually the safest part of his life -- his vacation.
After reading Jack London's "Sea Wolf" five years ago, Fee, and art major in college, foresook the unprofitable profession of stained glass window making and headed for Dutch Island, Alaska.
There, he lives on the beach, sleeping in abandoned Quonset huts, until he can get work as a deck hand on the five-to six-man Norwegian boats that set out for king crab.
"It's as close to the life of a whaling ship of 150 years ago as you could get," Fee said. "You leave port for one to three weeks, working at least 20 hours a day when you're 'on the crab' until the boat is full.
"It's part of the Norwegian's ethic that you don't stop fishing unless the boat is upsidedown. I've worked the edge of the boat -- six feet above the water -- when the seas were 40 feet and the winds 90 mph.
"I've seen men on other boats go overboard and die. I've fallen in once. The water is 35 degrees. It doesn't numb you; it attacks you.
"The Bering Sea is cold, gray, windy and lonesome -- something like the mountains that I luge on. But I love something about them both," said Fee, who was on the 1976 Olympic luge team and finished 23rd.
Fee senses that in himself, saying "Perhaps I'm schizophrenic, but I want the maximum intensity in what ever I do."
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Fee rhapsodizes about how he can feel every bump in the ice, how he has a special sense of floating when he is making an ideal run.
Ski jumpers call that sensation "a feel for the air" and say they seem to be "floating on a bed of air."
Speed skaters, those masochists who might prevent frostbite if they wore sensible socks, instead wear the thinnest hose, or even go barefoot inside their skates, so they can "feel the ice" as it cracks and crushes under them.
As for downhill skiers, the mystique surrounds the ability to "glide," to skim over the snow so that the illusion is created that the skis barely ever touch the ground.
Fee associates his moments of greatest risk, greatest speed and highest adrenaline levels with a profound quiet and sense of control. That mixture is his source of joy.
"Ski jumping's just like -- when you go off, everything's so quiet; you don't hear anything. It's like everyone's dream of flying. It's addicting," said U.S. jumper Jeff Davis.
And, said downhiller Andy Mill, "I've left fear behind to find solitude . . . When I leave the start, I leave my mind behind. Conscious thought is too slow . . . Everything is coming so fast that it's just a torrent of impressions. My whole being is exploding, but my main feeling is contentment."
Wrapped in this thrall, many of these solitary speed freaks of the mountains are shocked back to a proper appreciation of their danger only by a brush with death.
Of the worst day in downhill history, in January 1959 on the Kreuzeck in West Germany, Curtis Casewit wrote that the first three racers to finish the course said, "Madness," "Oh, God, oh, God," and, "I'm alive."
Yet 89 skiers went down the mountain that day, In all, 39 crashed, producing "one death, six broken legs, two broken ribs and one ripped-off nose -- cleanly sheared to the upper lip, bone and all."
The customary response to such disasters -- to those calls of 81, 81 -- is to pretend they never happened.
"Oh, yeah, I get scared once in a while", said Bob Hickey, driver of the U.S. team's No. 1 four-man bobsled. "If I flip over, I don't want to sit there. I try to go right back up to the top and have a good trip down.
"If you go home and think about it, you'll be really frightened by the next day."
It is commonplace for these Olympic daredevils to flatly deny the danger of their sports, pointing fingers at others and saying, "No, no. It's those guys who are crazy."
"I get sick of hearing the luge called the Olympics' most dangerous sport," said U.S. luger Jeff Tucker. "It's not nearly as dangerous as the bobsled."
"Ski jumping is certainly safer than Alpine skiing," said the U.S. coach, Glenn Kotlarek. "There's a bunch of dingdongs out Alpine skiing"
It is a harsh simplification to call these men and women "adrenaline junkies," although they themselves sometimes use the term. Nor is it fair to see them as half-formed personalities in search of cheap thrills.
If any athletes are forced to ask "why," it is these, who must face a mortal choice each time they look down from the top of the mountain.
"The attraction of all this confuses other people. They ask if we're crazy," said luger Tucker. "The attraction is the simplest thing possible. It's the joy of riding down the hill."
Perhaps we must leave the 20th century, go back to earlier times, to empathize with these souls who find, in our time, no outlet for an excess of courage.
Robert Burton, a contemporary of Shakespeare, chastised those who "do not live, but linger," and gave the valedictory for all those who feel the need to fly down mountains.
"Heaven itself has no power upon the past," Burton argued. "What has been, has been, and I have had my hour."
For those with an ancient, and perhaps out-of-fashion sort of bravery, these next two weeks will provide the hours that no power can rescind.