Winter Olympics: All About Alpine Skiing

To prepare for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia which begin on February 6, 2014, Dear Sports Fan is running a series of previews of Winter Olympics events. So far we’ve profiled the LugeSkeletonBobsledIce HockeyCross-Country Skiing, and Biathlon.

All About Alpine Skiing

alpine skiingAlpine Skiing is one of the signature sports of the Winter Olympics. It’s a familiar pastime for many amateur downhill skiing athletes but it retains significant mystique. It’s highly technical and yet simple in concept: who can make it down a steep, icy course fastest without falling? It’s a classic sport for dare-devils.

How Does Alpine Skiing Work?

In all the Alpine Skiing events, racers start at the top of a mountain and must make it down to the bottom of a course safely and quickly while skiing between pairs of flags places strategically and deviously by course designers. Unlike the experience of skiing recreationally, the surface is not the powder snow found commonly in Colorado or the mix of ice and snow found on the East Coast. The course has more in common with an artificial luge, bobsled, or skeleton track than a natural mountain. It’s rock-hard, solid ice. As you watch Alpine Skiing events in Sochi, listen to the sound of the skiers turning. You can hear the razor sharp edges of their skis cut into the icy course. To make turns at speeds up to 75 miles per hour, skiers have to have incredible strength and flexibility as well as the willingness to throw themselves into positions that seem to guarantee calamity. Most of the times, they come out of the turn unscathed, ready to position themselves for the next one. 
The gold medal run in Men’s Downhill from Vancouver 2010:

Why Do People Like Watching Alpine Skiing?

  • Relatable Speed: Lots of people go downhill skiing. I just did a few weeks ago. It was scary and exciting to travel down a mountain connected to the ground through only a couple of skinny pieces of fiberglass. I loved the feel of the wind and snow on my face as I hurtled towards the bottom. So, I know what these athletes are experiencing. Oh wait, no I don’t. What I was doing was a far cry from what Alpine Skiing olympians do but because it is unusual but understandable for me, I can imagine myself in Alpine Skiing events more easily than most other Winter Olympic events.
  • Fantastic Crashes: I’m not going to link to them but there are some incredible crashes in Alpine Skiing. A wrong move in this sport can take a skier airborne and deposit him or her a hundred feet down the hill in a heap… or a fence… or both. More than other sports, I remember Alpine Skiers making courageous returns from near-disastrous crashes.
  • More Cowbell: Alpine Skiing crowds are rowdy gatherings full of flag-bearing lunatics and lots, lots of cowbell.

What Are the Different Alpine Skiing Events?

Alpine Skiing has five medal events in the Olympics: the downhill, super giant slalom, giant slalom, slalom, and a combined event. The four classifications are actually pretty easy to remember. The downhill has gates that are placed the farthest apart, both across and down the hill, so the racers can go faster and more straight down the hill than in any other race. The slalom is the opposite — it has gates placed very close together and so it’s the slowest and most technical race. The other two are tweeners with the super giant slalom closer to downhill and the giant slalom closer to slalom. So, in order from speed to ticky-tackyness, it’s downhill, super giant slalom (often called “super G,”) giant slalom, and then slalom. The combined is a medley event that rewards the skier with the best combined time between a run of slalom and a run of downhill. Going outside a pair of gates disqualifies a racer in every discipline except for slalom. In slalom, a missed gate means a racer receives a time-penalty; not a fatal mistake but a bad one.

How Dangerous is Alpine Skiing?

It can be very dangerous. The higher speeds involved in the downhill make it the riskiest of the Alpine Skiing events. Torn knee-ligaments, broken bones, and internal injuries await a skier who mistimes a turn or loses control. Every skier wears a helmet but no other accommodations are made for protection. It’s a high-speed, high-risk game.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Olympic Alpine Skiing?

Hey! It’s pretty damn good! Each of the five events has a men’s medal and a women’s medal. The rules are more or less the same for both genders. The only difference is that the women’s courses are slightly shorter and have slightly fewer gates.

What are Some Fun Olympic Alpine Skiing Stories?

Lindsay Vonn was supposed to be the United States Olympic story of the year. Attractive, blond, strong, dating Tiger Woods, and attempting a dramatic comeback from a knee injury, Vonn had everything a television network could want to promote… until her knee refused to cooperate and she had to pull out of the Olympics. Now she’s joining NBC as a correspondent. It’s not quite as good.

Hubertus von Hohenlohe is Mexico’s one man Winter Olympic team and he’s making quite a stir. The Austrian raised, somewhat royal, five time Olympian plans to wear a ski suit designed to look like a classic mariachi costume. 

Important Links:

The official alpine skiing schedule.

NBC home-page for US TV information.

The Alpine Skiing events begin on Feb. 9 and end on Feb. 22.

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