Olympic Downhill Ski Racing Is About More Than Just Guts
We break down essential speed-skiing techniques and tactics used by the best of the best
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Speed skiers, the racers who compete in the downhill and super-G events, are a different breed. Routinely throwing oneself down icy, bumpy tracks at speeds in excess of 80 mph, where the slightest mistake or misjudgment can mean disaster, may sound a little crazy. But to be successful in these most dangerous of the alpine events takes more than just sheer guts.
Conventional wisdom says it takes years to gain the experience needed to rise to the top of the pile in the downhill circuit. “I feel like that’s a bit of a myth,” says four-time Olympian Marco Sullivan, who cites many athletes, including himself, who have had their best results their first time on a course. “If you’re really confident, and the hill suits you, and you’re ready to take that aggressive mindset, you can do it.”
Neither rookies nor seasoned vets will have seen the 2022 Olympic speed courses at the Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre before arriving in Beijing. Two-time Olympian Laurenne Ross points out, however, that veterans may still have an edge at adjusting to this brand-new hill’s particular challenges. “They have so much experience in so many different conditions that they are better at adapting,” Ross says.
Experience or not, here are just a few things the athletes will be looking to dial in by race day to give themselves an edge over their competitors.
This is when racers slide down the course and pick their line, assessing both the course set and the terrain. As Daron Rahlves explains in the podcast American Downhiller, “In downhill, you are skiing the mountain, not the course.” With no previous experience to gauge the mountain’s terrain and no natural features—like trees whizzing by—to gauge speed, it was not surprising that many top athletes, including four of the top five finishers, missed gates in the first downhill training run on February 3.
Inspection is especially critical in super-G, where the speeds are nearly as high, the corners are sharper and often blind, and there are no training runs before the race. Unlike in downhill, nobody knows how a super-G course will run until the first racer goes. It is not unusual to see early racers come over terrain and completely miss a gate because they misjudged their speed or line.
Training runs are where athletes experiment with line, figuring out where on the course they can open the throttle and where they need to take a more conservative approach. As Sullivan points out, the most important turns in any course are the ones that bring your momentum off the steeps. “That transition from steep to flat is the most important part of any course. Those are the turns you really have to focus on.”
By race day, when the big air and tough turns have been identified, most athletes will be on a similar line through the course. Some racers, if they feel comfortable enough on the course, will “push the line” on race day, taking a riskier, more direct path to gain extra speed. When that works, it shaves time. When it doesn’t, it can mean a missed gate—or worse, a crash.
Gliding and Aerodynamics
“Good gliders” are racers who are able to let their skis “swim” on the flats, using a minimal amount of edge pressure to turn, thereby creating the least friction. The Beijing course features flat sections at the top and bottom where racers can “grab the bully” and drop into a low, bullet-like tuck. To find their ideal tucks, athletes spend time in wind tunnels to tweak their various tuck positions and find a position with the least amount of drag.
Even more important than an ideal low tuck, however, is staying as aerodynamic as possible while coming out of the tuck to make turns and absorb bumps. At downhill speeds, any body part that comes out of line will act like a sail, creating drag and affecting balance. The fastest racers are those who can execute clean turns while staying as compact as possible on the ground and in the air.
It’s always faster to be on the ground than in the air, so athletes who absorb terrain have an advantage. At this year’s men’s World Cup downhill in Val Gardena, for instance, winner Bryce Bennett used his long limbs to absorb the many big bumps on the track to keep his skis on the ground. Big air, however, also indicates big speed, so it can be a good thing. The key to taking “good air” is keeping a compact body position, with hands down and close to the boots, and air flowing over the skis rather than under them.
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Athletes want to avoid the dreaded “starfish” position, where the body fully opens up, catching air and throwing the skier off balance. Other common mistakes include taking off with the body’s weight too far back, causing the ski tips to go up and increase drag, or taking off with a “loaded” ski (one that is turning) rather than a flat ski. This move, seen by several athletes off the “saddle” jump in Beijing, can lead to especially dangerous flights.
No matter how good an athlete’s line, aerodynamics, and gliding ability, it takes fast skis to win in downhill and super-G. This is especially important on a course like the one in Beijing, which has long gliding sections on extremely cold, dry, entirely man-made snow. In ski parlance, such snow is called “aggressive,” and it grabs at the skis rather than letting them slide.
How fast a ski glides in certain conditions depends on the base material, the machine grind put into the base at the factory, and the wax applied to the ski, both on race day and over time. Here again, this untested venue presents challenges for the ski techs, all of whom are scrambling to find the magic combination of base material, grind, and wax for their athletes, with no historical data. They will choose from a quiver of skis that are their best guess based on the limited information they have. “I think the ski choice will be a big deal,” Sullivan says. “A ski that runs well in Lake Louise could do well in Beijing.”
Tweaks and Tuning
The snow also presents another challenge—and possibly an advantage for the Americans. This type of aggressive snow—which is far more similar to early season man-made Colorado snow than it is to warmer, wetter European snow—can be tricky for athletes, often requiring adjustments to their technique and equipment.
“It’s more difficult when the snow is really aggressive to nail the equipment,” Ross explains. “You start getting catchy, and your skis hook up really fast. It can be sketchy.” This often requires athletes to tweak their boots, bindings, and skis to achieve a comfortable balance of precision and forgiveness in their equipment. Ross points out that this might favor the Americans, who train on aggressive Colorado snow during the early season, as well as any athletes who are used to making those types of adjustments.
The Luck of the Draw
On the Beijing course, where the sun is always out and the surface is uniformly bulletproof, changing conditions and any specific bib number will play less of a role than the gusty and unpredictable winds on all parts of the course. Those were already a factor in training runs—the third men’s training run was canceled due to high winds—and likely will be on race day as well.
However, as challenging as it is for athletes and their teams to tackle an untested slope, Ross and Sullivan are positive about a brand-new venue, both for spectators and athletes. “In my opinion, the course being raced sight unseen is kind of cool,” Sullivan says. “I feel like it really favors the skiers who are strong and skiing well at the moment, as well as the younger skiers, who don’t necessarily know their main strengths yet.” Ross concurs that a new venue can be a positive thing, noting, “It kind of levels out the playing field.”
Regardless of experience, training run results, and predictions, the Olympics are wide open in the speed-skiing events. “It’s anybody’s game,” Ross says. “Once you step into the start gate, you just have to give it everything you have, because it is the biggest race of your life.”
The Beijing Olympics speed-skiing events kick off on February 5 at 10 p.m. EST. Here’s how to watch Americans Bryce Bennett, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, and Travis Ganong go for gold on NBC and its affiliate programs.