So you’re thinking of a ski holiday? Considering France, Switzerland, Italy? Anywhere with an Alpine backdrop of snow, mountains, and a decent piste. Will it be your first time or are you a seasoned pro? Are you up to the standard of a legendary ski champion such as Jean-Claude Killy?
The answer to the last question is probably a resounding no, as reaching such a pinnacle in the world of alpine skiing takes enormous discipline and continual training.
Amidst the accolade, prestige and glamour of the international ski circuit, the highlight of a successful career as a professional skier must be to take home a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. An achievement that the aforementioned Jean-Claude Killy famously (and controversially in the case of the slalom) pulled off in all three of the men’s events at the 1968 Olympiad held in Grenoble, France.
Forty years ago there were only the three alpine skiing events in contention at the Olympics, but in the modern era that has been stretched to five. Alpine skiing is the generally used term for downhill skiing and as of the 2006 Winter Olympics the events were the Downhill; the Slalom; the Combined; the Giant Slalom; and the Super-G.
The Downhill is both the fastest and the most dangerous of all the alpine ski events. It involves skiing down a mountain through a course that has been crafted especially for the race. The snow is usually iced over to both protect it from forming dangerous ridges and to increase the speed of the challengers. They will hurtle downhill at speeds in excess of 80mph, passing through gates that guide their progress and taking in jumps, turns, flats and steeps. It’s these speeds that have given this event the dubious honour of being the most dangerous and, despite safety netting and padding strategically placed at what are predicted to be potential trouble-spots, there have been numerous crashes resulting in both serious injury and death. The times for the downhill are taken from a single run, with the fastest time claiming victory. Due to its inherently dangerous nature, the downhill is also the only one of these disciplines to allow practice runs beforehand. The competing skiers are only allowed to inspect the run in the other events, having to rely on their memory of the layout when the time comes to attack the course.
The Slalom Ski Event
The Slalom is all about short courses and fast turns. The gates (poles that a skier passes through) on a slalom run are spaced the nearest distance apart of any of the Alpine ski events, causing the skier to twist and turn their way down the course, whilst trying to maintain the truest possible ‘racing line’. Nowadays the gates on a slalom course are on spring-loaded hinges, meaning the skier can knock them out of the way as they pass through (a practice known as blocking), which was not possible with the original use of bamboo poles. This ensures a fast a speed and the minimum of deviation from the most direct route. The skier is timed over two runs down the course, the gates positioned differently second time around, and their result is an aggregate of these two runs. Obviously, the fastest time wins.
The Combined is an amalgamation of both of the above. The competitor takes part in one run on the downhill circuit and two on the slalom. It is carried out over a single day and once again it’s the skier with the fastest combined time that takes gold.
The Giant Slalom is a slightly smoother alternative to the normal slalom. The gates are set further apart and the turns aren’t as frequent, eliminating the need for the sharp twisting motion that characterises the more traditional slalom event. Once again the race is decided over two runs with an aggregated time deciding the winner.
The Super-G, or the Super Giant Slalom to give it its full title, takes the speed of the downhill event and the turns of the giant slalom and combines them for a single run. As with the downhill, the competitor will usually assume the aerodynamic ‘tuck’ position, although they never achieve the same speeds as that discipline because of the turns minimising the opportunity to free-glide. The Super-G was first included as an alpine ski discipline at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
Different styles of ski, built to competition standard specifications, are used for each of these disciplines. Longer, straighter skis are used in the downhill to ensure maximum speeds, whereas shorter, sidecut skis are used in slalom events that are proven to aid in fast turning.
In all of these events a skier will be disqualified for missing a gate, which is the source of the aforementioned controversy surrounding Jean-Claude Killy’s slalom gold at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics. Austrian skier Karl Schranz pulled up after he claimed a ‘mysterious man in black’ ran out in front of him during his run. He was allowed to make a second attempt and proceeded to record the fastest time. However he was then disqualified after an appeal, when it was adjudged that the skier had missed a gate on the initial aborted run. This naturally led to claims that there was a conspiracy to ensure the host nation of France took all three gold medals.