It's the Small Things that Matter in the Giant Slalom

Technical ski racing and perfect bluebird weather shine a light on winter-sports perfection, often lost amidst the five-ring circus that is the modern Olympics.

Feb 22, 2006
Outside Magazine
Turin Olympics Glossary & Map

As the Turin Winter Olympics races to the finish line with the élan of speedster Shani Davis (pouting included), we countdown to an alphabetical crescendo of all things Olympian, Italian, and semantically significant. Today:

Tuesday, February 21

I'm back up in Sestriere, where the skies have gone bluebird and there is a fresh coat of paint on the mountains. Course workers pulled an all-nighter to prepare the Giant Slalom course for yesterday's race, trying to get rid of all the powder and scrape it down to that bulletproof ice that only a ski racer could love. Giant cat-mounted snowblowers and an army of Italian Alpini troops had the course ready just an hour off schedule, and I arrived at Sestriere Colle just as the first skiers made their starts.

The Canadian coach set a particularly difficult course, and from outside the arena, I could easily see that several racers were skiing out, missing gates and falling. It became an epidemic, as it seemed that every couple of racers got the big DNF—did not finish—against their names. I got as close as I could without a ticket and watched as Rahlves and Ligety both went off-course, able to hear the call from the loudspeakers. A disappointing Olympics for Daron after such a promising season; it's a rough way for him to end his career. Probably the best speed skier that the U.S. has ever produced, he wanted a medal so badly, but it just kept slipping away from him. Ligety remains the only alpine-skiing star of the Games for Team USA, and still has another shot at glory in the Slalom on Saturday.

I walked over to the Hotel Cristallo, where the USSA has a hospitality suite, which was a great place to watch the race on Eurosport (with actual English-speaking commentators) alongside former U.S .Ski Team GS racer Jeremy Nobis, now one of the foremost extreme skiers in the world. Nobis always has good commentary, and had raced against many of the veterans during his career. I missed Bode Miller's run, but Nobis told me he was still in the hunt despite hooking a gate with his arm in the flats and losing substantial time.

The disastrous first run continued, with 35 of 82 racers falling or missing gates. Despite the remarkable job of coursework, the combination of new snow on top of the water-injected ice made for deep ruts that proved difficult given the nature of the gate layout. Racers were just stepping out of their skis as they tried to make a late turn and hit the ruts sideways, and one skier even ripped his binding plate clear off of his ski. Others just missed gates, swinging too wide, and were unable to compensate for their next gate.

Amazingly, there were several Canadians in the top 20 after one run, including François Bourque in first, while Eric Schlopy and Bode were still alive for the U.S. Other contenders were the ever-threatening Hermanator and Benjamin Raich, and Frenchman Joel Chenal.

Nobis took me to his favorite restaurant here in Sestriere, La Baita, where the owner sat us in the back dining room and prepared our food without my ever seeing a menu. A spicy pasta all'arrabiatta with a Bolognese sauce on the side and a bottle of Barbera d'Asti was a perfect mid-afternoon snack before round two, which was to start at 1:45pm.

We walked up to the gates just before 1:30 and I lost Nobis in the crowd. I wasn't too worried about whether or not I found a ticket; it was such a nice day that sitting anywhere would have been fine. But I scored again as someone walked up holding a ticket over their head and I asked them what they wanted for it. "Nothing, it's yours," the kind stranger said. Another example of too many tickets and no way to get rid of them.

With the fresh snow everywhere in the Alps, it has become harder and harder for me to concentrate on watching guys in tight suits skiing gates while I see fresh trenches all over the place. I haven't had my boots on for two weeks now and it's killing me. Just before the race, I noticed a trio of beautiful turns right down the gut of a distant north-facing peak. That's it. I'm skiing tomorrow.

The second run went off in a reverse-30 order, so Bode and the Austrians wouldn't run for a while. The course was set by an American coach, and seemed to be more manageable and really allowed the racers to capitalize on their strengths. The GS is such a precision event, where racers make such deep, carving turns at speed, putting incredible G-forces into their skis. The ruts they leave in the rink-hard snow is a testament to their ability.

Schlopy skied a clean run and briefly had a spot on the leaderboard, but it was short-lived and he would finish 13th. Bode skied a clean run, making up for the time he lost in the first run, and he seemed to be headed for the podium. But Hermann Maier knocked him out of first easily, by a margin of 0.9 seconds. Aksel Lund Svindal of Sweden added insult to injury, tying Miller's time, and they had a brief stint in the bronze position before winding up in sixth. It always amazes me that two skiers with different skis, body weights, and styles can ski two runs and finish with exactly the same time, down to the hundredth of a second.

Benny Raich had a blistering run that was as clean as it gets, and it was obvious he was going home with the gold again, while Frenchman Joel Chenal took the silver. Maier took bronze for his fifth career Olympic medal.

We headed back to the Cristallo and watched the Women's Super-G, seeing another average performance from our girls although they skied good, clean runs. Michaela Dorfmeister took gold again for Austria, adding another substantial souvenir to her retirement run here at the Games. I ran into Sean Clark, U.S. ski-racer Kirsten Clark's brother, at the USA house later that night, and he said his sister's spirits were high after a tough day. "On another course, she would have been in the hunt," he said. "But the middle of that course is pretty flat and she just isn't as heavy as those other girls to carry speed there."

Another disappointing day for the U.S., despite good runs from Bode and Schlopy, but the festivities in the Austria house were much more exciting. I got that report from Pepi Stiegler, father of U.S. technical skiing sweetheart Resi, and a former Olympic champion himself for Austria in 1964. Pepi, the founder of the Jackson Hole ski school, was having a difficult time finding tickets for himself at these Games, but found an oasis of hospitality at the Austrian HQ despite not recognizing many faces. "[Franz] Klammer was the only person I knew there," said Stiegler. "But they had a lot of really good food that came out after Dorfmeister won the second gold of the day."

How cool is that? Two ex-Olympic champions watching a race on TV amidst all of the hype; guys that did it for the love of the sport long before the Games became the media circus they are now.

Late that night, I wound up at photog Jonathan Selkowitz's apartment to crash. He came back late from the Men's Freestyle Aerials competition and had yet to review any of his shots from the GS. As he downloaded them onto his laptop, we looked closely at the skis of each racer, seeing where they made mistakes and who was skiing well. To see Bode's skis, both in identical parallel arc, his body fully extended and hammering through the gate, gives you an insight that you miss when watching real-time. Ligety also had great form, in just the right place over his skis and in command of the carve. But the most impressive shots were of Maier, his face contorted like a weightlifter, putting every ounce of his considerable frame into every turn. If GS races were judged like so many of these other sports we see in the Winter Games, he would have gone home with the gold. But thankfully the race is judged by the clock, and he still took a bronze away.