Jeff Christie knows that there will never be a “Luge Night in Canada.” And that his chances of someday gracing a trading card are slim to none. But a year before the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics—the biggest sporting event of his life, in his home town to boot—the 26-year-old might reasonably have expected that he and his buddies on Canada’s National Luge Team would have an official corporate patron. However, the feel-good money that businesses have been showering on the country’s 2010 medal hopefuls has somehow failed to fall on the guys and gals who slide feet-first down icy mountains.
So with the countdown clock ticking, Christie and his seven teammates are resorting to desperate measures. At World Cup events this weekend in Calgary, and on the Olympic track in Whistler, B.C. Feb 20-21, Canada’s lugers will be wearing “For Sale” stickers on their helmets in hopes that either pity or patriotism will finally coax a benefactor out of the woodwork. “We’re not looking for millions,” Christie says from Calgary. “Just $250,000 or $300,000.”
In the 14-years the Vancouverite has been on the junior and senior teams, there has never been an overall sponsor. But Christie—who receives personal support from Visa and Diamond Tree Energy—knows what sort of difference it would make. “The personal sponsorship has allowed me to do luge. Period,” he says. “I’m not talking about getting rich, but paying the bills—food, clothing, shelter.”
In the run-up to the Games, Own the Podium, Canada’s winter high-performance program has been helping the lugers with travel and training expenses. But it’s in this one crucial off-season where business backing would really help. The lugers could hold a summer camp, and maybe buy a specialized start-training machine (price tag: $15,000,) and all the other kinds of equipment that top sliding nations like Germany and Italy already enjoy. (Last weekend in Lake Placid, NY, the Canadians turned in their best individual result of the World Cup season, a 4th place finish in the women’s event by Calgary’s Alex Gough. In late January, Canada won silver in the combined—men’s, women’s, and double’s—race in Altenberg, Germany.)
The lugers aren’t just tugging at the heartstrings of Canadians, they are also trying to tweak their funny bones. With the help of a Calgary filmmaker, the team have embarked on a year-long web-based comedy series, I Love a Luger. The shorts will follow the ups and downs of Nikki, a girl with a taste for spandex and those who wear it, and feature regular cameos by members of the Canadian team. “I love a guy who can finish,” Nikki reveals in the initial Valentine’s Day-themed episode. (The website also allows the general public to donate directly to the athletes by buying icons: $10 for the spandex, $20 for the tuques, and $50 for hearts.)
Christie, who figures the sliders might hit an unheard of 160 km/h at Whistler’s super-fast track next weekend, says he hopes the new approach will remind Canadians that the sport is neither strange, nor inaccessible. “That thrill of bombing down a hill on a toboggan is the same one the we get on the track.”
But with just 365 days to go until Games time, the lugers aren’t the only ones begging for one last financial push over the top. Last weekend at the World Cup bobsled event at Whistler’s Olympic Sliding Centre, Lyndon Rush, a 28-year-old from Humboldt, SK, posted his best-ever result—4th in the two-man competition along with his brakeman Lascelles Brown. The pair were barely off the track when Rush—taking full advantage of the unusually large complement of Canadian media in attendance—launched into a plea for $150,000 to buy a new, top-of-the-line sled. “Normally we don’t have a chance to finish this high. I mean, I’m driving a 1992 model,” he said. Rush, who’s competing in the shadow of Canada’s number-one pilot, Pierre Leuders, winner of Olympic gold (Nagano, 1998) and silver (Torino, 2006), says he’s got everything lined-up, all he needs is a corporate angel. And if that doesn’t happen? Rush still has a plan. “If I have to remortgage my house I will,” he said. “How many opportunities like this do you have? The Olympic year, and it’s on my home track, and I’m going to have more runs than every other guy in the world, except another Canadian.”