You are sitting across the dinner table from a man who has won two Olympic silver medals and is attempting to find a simple way to measure the gap that has kept him from winning two golds.
The gap is 319/1000ths of a second: three-tenths of a second if one is rounding down, which is something the sport of luge never does.
You clap your hands quickly twice.
“I guess that is about right,” Markus Prock says. “That is about the difference.”
It is a painfully slim difference for a man who has devoted much of his existence to sliding as quickly as possible down sinuous, slippery tracks with his toes pointing downhill and his body locked into the most aerodynamic position that time in a wind-tunnel can buy: 400 runs a year for years; multiple World Cup overall titles; world championships in 1987 and 1996 but no golds in the Olympics, which lugers, like so many other winter athletes, still consider the most reliable mettle detector.
“Maybe I wanted too much to win,” Prock says. “Maybe I was thinking too much about winning. But perhaps I am saving the best for last, like Dan Jansen.”
The next day, you are sitting across a different table in a different dining room with the man who finished ahead of Prock in the last two Olympics. Like Prock, Georg Hackl is a soldier who has never fired a shot in anger, serving in the ceremonial sports division of his nation’s army.
They are friendly but not friends, and they have been racing against each other regularly since the 1983 junior European championships. Prock is 33, a recently married Austrian (with a young daughter) who lives in the Tyrol and thrives in the weight room. Hackl is 31, an unmarried German who lives in Bavaria and thrives in the workshop, where he builds most of his equipment and tinkers with his edge.
“To be part of developing a sport is something that is very satisfying,” Hackl explains. “If you took a sled from 10 years ago, it would be more than half a second slower. I was world champion; I was Olympic champion; I was the best, and then the others tried to beat me. They succeeded. Then I try to beat them.
“This pushes the process, and that is what has kept my interest for 20 years. I design my sleds. I design the start technique, the driving, the aerodynamic position and the equipment.”
Soon, you are clapping your hands twice for Hackl.
“I do feel sympathy for Prock,” he said. “And maybe someday, if the opportunity is right, maybe I will tell him.”
Hackl is the most successful male singles luger in the sport’s relatively short Olympic history, which began in 1964. He won the silver medal in 1988 at age 21. Prock, the favorite who had competed in Sarajevo four years earlier, finished 11th.
In 1992, after improving his start on a special training ramp made for him at his home course of Konigsee, Hackl recorded the fastest times in three of the four runs at the Olympic course in La Plagne to beat Prock by an aggregate time of 306/1000ths of a second.
What happened two years later in Lillehammer made that look like a rout. After recording the fastest time in the third run, Prock took the lead over Hackl by 48/100ths of a second.
Prock, suffering from tonsillitis that he did not want to use as an excuse, was less than perfect in the final run, and Hackl was close enough to it. Hackl won the gold by 13/1000ths of a second, one-hundredth of a second if one still insists on rounding down. It was a margin of victory for the digital era.
“I know that I was very lucky,” Hackl said. “One-hundredth of a second? What is that? But to be honest, I now consider it the greatest performance of my life.”
As Prock prepares for his final Olympic duel with Hackl in Nagano, he is attempting to calm his psyche, just as he attempts to maximize his chances by testing equipment during World Cup races instead of sliding at full speed.
“Sure it’s different to say that you won a gold medal instead of a silver,” Prock said. “But for me, now that I have a family, you know that other things are also very important. In Lillehammer, all I could think about is how to get that hundredth of a second back. But you also need to know that your daughter is healthy and everything is OK with your wife. Luge is not the most important thing.”
For the moment, luge may still be the most important thing in Hackl’s life. Despite his sore back and faltering start times, he wants to become the first singles slider to win three consecutive gold medals. But if he fails, he knows whom he wants to succeed; whom he wants to enjoy the sound of hands clapping much longer than twice quickly.
“Prock deserves it,” Hackl said. “It is all he is missing.”