- Associated Press - Saturday, February 8, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - Defending the Olympic title in men’s luge used to seem impossible. The first seven times the sport was in the Olympic program, from 1964 through 1988, seven different men won the gold medal.

That was then.

This is now, the era of eras. Germany’s Georg Hackl won three straight golds from 1992 through 1998, Italy’s Armin Zoeggeler went back-to-back in 2002 and 2006, and now Felix Loch is two runs away from becoming the third man to successfully defend the Olympic title.

The German leads Russia’s Albert Demchenko by 0.294 seconds at the midway point of the competition, with Zoeggeler another 0.450 seconds back in third place. No one else in the field was within a second of Loch’s two-run time, after he made his initial trips down the pristine track at the Sanki Sliding Center in 1 minute, 44.149 seconds.

“Those guys, you can see that they’re risking it,” said Canada’s Samuel Edney, who was 10th at the midway point, 1.180 seconds behind Loch. “And you know that Albert has got a lot of pressure on him. So that’s one thing that I think is going to pan out in the next couple runs, to see how he handles that pressure.”

He didn’t seem like he was handling the pressure all that well Saturday night, barely stopping to speak with reporters, saying only that “everything’s all right” before walking off into the night.

Loch, meanwhile, gave interviews for well over half an hour. And Zoeggeler, looking for what would be his record sixth Olympic men’s luge singles medal, was perfectly composed when talking about his medal chances.

Zoeggeler barely talked about his gold chances. He knew better. Barring a crash, he won’t be catching Loch. But if Demchenko opens the door with a mistake, the Italian might slide his way into the silver spot.

“For second place and third place, it will still be very hard work for me,” Zoeggeler said.

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Here are five things to watch in the final two runs of the men’s singles competition:

DEMCHENKO‘S SLOW STARTS: Demchenko had the 22nd-best start in the first heat, 18th-best in the second heat. By the midway part of the course, he’s flying, and he was the only slider in the field to break 86 mph in both runs. Still, he’s giving too much time away to Loch up toward the top of the course.

MAZDZER TIME: Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake, N.Y., is 13th after two runs, 1.238 seconds away from Loch. But he’s a mere two-tenths of a second away from Germany’s Andi Langenhan, who sits in fourth place. “I guess when you’re sitting in 10th place, it doesn’t matter if you’re sixth or 20th,” Mazdzer said.

US HOPEFULS: Tucker West of Ridgefield, Conn., is in 23rd place, and Aidan Kelly of West Islip, N.Y., sits in 26th. Top-20 showings are still possible for both, and considering that they’re both still eligible to run in junior-level races, that would hardly be considered disappointing Olympic debuts.

FEW INCIDENTS: The closest thing to a crash on Day 1 was when a slider from Taiwan went way off line in his first run, but was able to finish. Sliders love speed and the Sanki track is fast, but all 78 runs ended safely Saturday.

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