Johannes Ludwig of Germany was the men's winner and Eliza Cauce of Latvia got her first women's World Cup luge win Saturday, a day where several of the top racers sat out in a protest over safety and conditions at the track in Winterberg, Germany.
Ludwig held off Latvia's Kristers Aparjods and fellow German Sebastian Bley to get his third win of the season, prevailing in a race where six of the top nine men in the world rankings entering Saturday — including World Cup leader and reigning world champion Roman Repilov of Russia — refused to compete.
Cauce prevailed by nearly one-tenth of a second over World Cup leader Tatyana Ivanova of Russia, while Germany's Julia Taubitz was third in the women's race.
USA Luge did not compete Saturday, nor did the Austrian team that includes reigning Olympic men's champion David Gleirscher, nor did two-time Olympic champion Felix Loch of Germany — who missed a World Cup for the first time in three years. Athletes had been saying throughout the week that the track surface was not suitable for racing, noting a high number of crashes on training days, and felt the International Luge Federation had not taken their concerns seriously.
The federation changed race distances, making them shorter with hopes of safer racing. But some athletes clearly felt that wasn't enough.
"I have grown a great disdain for the International Luge Federation, and those who make these decisions," top U.S. women's slider Summer Britcher wrote as part of a long post on her Instagram page. The FIL saw the post and later announced that Britcher would face a still-undetermined sanction for what it called her "unsporting behavior."
"The safety of our athletes is our No. 1 priority," FIL Technical Director Christian Eigentler said.
Britcher, however, was not alone in issuing sharp criticism of the FIL: Fellow U.S. sliders, as well as ones from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and more also spoke out about the issue.
"THIS IS FIASCO," Repilov, in English, posted on his Instagram, adding that the track was not ready for racing.
The doubles race and team relay are Sunday, where there will be more notable absences. All three German doubles sleds, including World Cup leaders Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken along with top challengers Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt, have said they won't race. That could mean Germany wouldn't even qualify for the team relay, a race that the U.S. and Austria will also be sitting out.
The drama of this weekend will lead to more next weekend in the World Cup finale at Konigssee, Germany, where three seasonlong championships will be at stake — all in down-to-the-wire races.
Italy's Dominik Fischnaller was fourth in the men's race Saturday, pulling him within one point of Repilov in the race for the season championship. Russia's Semen Pavlichenko is the only other men's slider with a mathematical chance of winning the title, and he would need both Fischnaller and Repilov to struggle in order to have any realistic shot.
Ivanova will take a 27-point lead over Taubitz into the final women's race of the season, where one of them will unseat seven-time defending champion Natalie Geisenberger — the German legend who sat out this season while expecting her first child — as the new series winner. Ivanova would clinch the title with a first- or second-place finish; Taubitz could clinch with a win and Ivanova finishing third or worse.
"I am not giving up my fight for the overall title just yet," Taubitz said. "Tatyana is now a few points ahead. Konigssee is one of my favorite tracks, I'm looking forward to it and to the final battle for overall victory."
And the doubles title will likely come down to a pair of German sleds: Eggert and Benecken, or Wendl and Arlt. The Eggert-Benecken lead over Wendl-Arlt is just 10 points, though if both of those sleds significantly falter there would be some mathematically possible scenarios where the Latvian team of Andris Sics and Juris Sics — a duo that is going to race Sunday while the Germans sit out — could still win the season championship