Olympics 101: Downhill Skiing

Charlie Enberg

Most Americans don’t know much about alpine ski racing and very few even watch the sport during the Olympics. Sadly, they are missing out on one of the greatest sporting spectacles the Games has to offer. When you watch these racers on TV, the sport does not look overly intimidating, but the reality is that these athletes are risking their lives every time they launch out of the starting gates.

There are two factors that Olympic spectators cannot possibly fathom about ski racing: the speeds and the terrain. Male ski racers regularly hit 90 miles per hour, a speed most drivers won’t dare reach even on a straight highway. Additionally, these courses are not straightaways, but tight-winding trails covered in a thick sheet of ice. The leg strength needed to make these turns without losing balance and crashing is extraordinary. To put this into perspective, Bode Miller, a top ski racer, can squat 515 pounds while All-Pro football linebacker Patrick Willis can only max out at 500 pounds. At top speeds, a fall could be life-threatening and almost always results in painful injuries. The misconception is that they will fall into nice fluffy snow, but as mentioned earlier, this is not the case because the course is all hard ice. Unfortunately, these perilous courses have claimed the lives of many young ski racers over the years. Since 1959, 11 athletes have been killed in ski races and many more have been paralyzed or severely injured. So on top of their overwhelming athleticism, they are also fearless athletes who have, for lack of a better word, “guts.”

If you plan on watching downhill ski racing this winter in Sochi, it is not hard to catch onto the rules and scoring. Essentially, the course is delineated with blue lines that guide the racer through two gates that are separated a few meters apart. If a racer skis outside the gates, he or she is disqualified. As far as scoring goes, the winner is the racer who completes the course in the shortest amount of time.

For this year’s Olympics, the course is 2.2 miles long with a 3,537 foot total vertical drop. The competitors have been scoping out the course for months now.

“It challenges athletes with all the key components: speed, high-speed turns, big jumps and both technical and gliding sections. Physically, it’s very demanding; more turns means more force the athletes are exposed to,” U.S. Ski Team head coach Sasha Rearick said (Powder Magazine, 2014). If the 2013 World Cup standings are any indication of country performance in Sochi, then the favorites are the United States, Austria and Germany, who finished first, second and third respectively. Individually, the favorites on the men’s side are Aksel Lund Svindal (Norway) and Bode Miller (USA).

Svidnal took the silver medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 and has enjoyed a long career with World Cup championships in both 2007 and 2009. He is now an experienced 31-year-old who will certainly make some noise in Sochi. Miller is a staple of American downhill and is one of the most decorated athletes in the world with five Olympic medals, including a gold in Super Combined at Vancouver. However, Miller’s actions are unpredictable so with him you never really know what you’re going to see.

On the women’s side, the favorite is Maria Hofl-Riesch, a 29-year old German downhill racer who has dominated over the past ten years and will certainly look to win the gold this year. The other favorite was Lindsey Vonn, who is arguably the best women’s ski racer of the modern era, but she will not be competing in this years Olympics due to a gruesome knee injury she suffered last year.

If you don’t normally watch downhill ski racing, give it a shot this year and you will not be disappointed.

Contact Charlie Enberg at [email protected]