An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.
Modern alpine ski events in the Olympics mirror those of the World Cup, a winter-long series of races organized and controlled by the International Ski Federation, or FIS. The races are the downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G, and alpine combined.
Field of Play
One of the allures of downhill skiing is its great diversity of venues. No single ski race is ever the same from one locale to another, simply because they’re competed on mountainsides, each of which is unique. Ski races typically unfold on the slopes of established ski areas: A giant swath of the ski terrain is essentially roped off, from top to bottom. From there, course setters—often former ski racers well versed in the sort of turns, jumps, and terrain transitions skiers can physically make—choose a path down the mountainside, marking it with “gates,” made of fiberglass poles inserted into the snow. Placement and distance between the gates varies widely depending on the type of race.
In addition to the wild-card element of varying topography, weather and snow conditions play perhaps a larger role in ski racing than in any other winter sport.
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Weather can change dramatically during a race. An approaching warm front can turn a fast, icy course to soft and mushy between the time the first racer and 20th racer take the course. Visibility also can change quickly and dramatically.
Sometimes, where you start (in a race starting order is determined by a draw; second runs are usually run in reverse order of finish from the first run, with the fastest first-run competitors skiing last) may be every bit as important as how you perform: Conditions conducive to very fast times for early starters might become impossible to match later on. This is the crapshoot element of this and other alpine sports. Unlike their ice-based rivals, snow sports remain firmly under the control of the elements.
Format, Rules, and Strategy
The downhill and super-G are known as “speed” events, while the slaloms fall into the “technical” skiing category. Combined is a mixture of both. Most skiers excel at one category or the other. Only the choicest few can lay down winning times in both disciplines. And they become the masters of the international ski-racing universe.
The downhill, one of the most gripping events in alpine skiing, has become a signature competition for the Olympics, thanks to some memorable performances. It’s one of the true gut-check events in competitive sports, with skiers hurtling at speeds approaching 90 mph (145 kilometers per hour), often barely under control, down mountainsides for long distances.
It’s also one of the easiest races to follow for spectators: It’s one run only, and the fastest one down wins. Races are timed to within one hundredth of a second, and that’s sometimes the margin of victory over a course that takes more than 2 minutes to run. Tiny mistakes, needless to say, are magnified, and can mean the difference between gold and a bottom-20 finish.
Gates for downhill courses are spaced far apart, creating wide, sweeping turns to accommodate the speed of the racers. Most courses have at least one jump, where skiers fly long distances through the air while remaining in a tucked position. As if all this weren’t difficult enough, downhill offers an additional challenge: Because the courses are so long and cover such a wide range of altitudes, snow conditions can vary greatly from one part of the course to the next within a single racer’s run. Skiers have to adjust their balance quickly and repeatedly to accommodate for very icy or very grippy snow.
It’s notable that the downhill, because it’s so dangerous (racers have been killed in spectacular crashes on the World Cup circuit), is the only alpine ski event for which training runs are allowed.
The other speed event, the super-G (short for super giant slalom) is similar to a downhill, except that the gates (minimum number of turns is 35 for men, 30 for women) are placed closer together and the overall course is shorter. It’s also a single-run event: the fastest time wins.
In the giant slalom, on a course even shorter than a super-G with more closely bunched gates (alternating blue and red), skiers make more rapid, rhythmic turns down two different courses on the same slope. Typically, one run is held in the morning, the other in the afternoon, with the top 30 finishers from the first run advancing to the second. The lowest combined time of the two runs is the winner.
The slalom, run on a short course with gates very close together, is ski racing’s most technical—that is, quick-turning—race. Slalom skiers are constantly turning between closely bunched gates (55 to 75 for men, 45 to 65 for women), usually crashing through them with their shins and forearms. As long as their skis go around the gate poles, it’s all legal. But if you miss a gate, you have to go back up and around it, which means you’ll be out of the running. Slalom thus is a bit of a game of chicken with the spring-loaded gates: You want to cut as close to their base as you can, but cut it too close and you’re all done. Like giant slalom, the slalom is run on two different courses on the same slope, on the same day. The lowest total time wins.
The super combined is a hybrid event, combining one run of downhill followed by two slalom runs, usually the following day. The times are added together, with the lowest total time winning. It’s a true test of total skier ability; even those with the very fastest downhill times can’t win the super combined without posting better-than-respectable times in the slalom, and vice versa.
Training and Equipment
Training for alpine racing, not surprisingly, is intensely lower-body oriented. Ski racers undergo leg-strength training that borders on brutal: everything from intensive weight and resistance training to cycling and performing nonstop, two-footed hops over tall obstacles to the point of exhaustion. Endurance is also critical, creating the need for constant aerobic work as well. The fastest racers are those who have the strength to stay in perfect form—that tight-ball tuck position at the end of the downhill is more difficult to maintain than you can possibly imagine—all the way to the finish line.
Equipment also plays a crucial role—perhaps more so than in any other Olympic sport. Fast skis—those “tuned” perfectly for the conditions by sharpening and dulling edges and using the proper type of wax—are essential. Not even the world’s best skiers will win on a day where they’ve chosen the wrong boards for their run.
Most skiers thus travel with entire truckloads of skis suited for all manner of conditions, and the top-level racers have their own personal ski technicians, usually provided by one of the ski manufacturers signed on as sponsors. Note that ski technology has changed radically in the past 15 years. With the advent of wider, “shaped” skis that are broader at the tips and tail than the old straight-arrow skis of yore, most competitive racers are skiing on shorter skis than ever before. Whereas long racing skis of up to 215 centimeters were the norm through the 1980s, most racers are running on skis as short as the 180-centimeter range in “speed” events today, and slalom racers will be found on skis as short as 160 centimeters.