The real question in ski racing: death... or glory?
Olympic skiing began this morning—men's downhill, airing on tape delay at 11 a.m.—and if you're like most viewers, you either watch the sport with quadrennial befuddlement or you change the channel entirely. As a former ski racer, and someone who started scooting around on skis at about the same time I was working out how not to fall on my face on flat land, I get it. I really do. Skiing is a niche sport: equipment-, travel-, and time-intensive, not to mention expensive. (I'm not even talking about skis. I mean, have you seen the prices of hamburgers at a lodge at Vail?)
And for a non-skier, watching ski racing can be disorienting. It seems like it should be easy enough to understand. Fastest time wins, right? But then, why are the commentators using words that seem more suited to a card game ("flush"? "combination"?) than an Olympic sport? What makes the five events different enough that, say, Mikaela Shiffrin, the much-buzzed-about female U.S. skier, isn't even competing in three of them? And why do they not even look like they're going that fast? (Interjection here: It's all the bad camera angles, which make slopes look flat and skiers look slow. They're not. In the fastest event, they're going 90, up to 100 mph. And that's not a race car, people. That's a person.)
I have some answers to those questions, and also to the ghoulish sort of questions that you're probably too polite to ask, such as, "What does it do to the human knee to crash when you're pulling g-forces unknown even to astronauts?"
We'll get to that. Let's start with the basics.
Every millisecond matters. In a course that's two to two and a half minutes long, a single second can be the difference between gold and back-of-the-pack. No, really: In Kitzbühel's super-G race on Jan. 26, the difference between No. 1, Switzerland's Didier Defago, and No. 34, Slovenia's Andrej Sporn, was 0.97 seconds. In fact, an Olympic silver medalist hasn't finished more than a second behind the winner since the LBJ administration. So not only does every turn matters, but every inch of every turn.
Which means any mistake can be major. For most of us watching on a TV screen, it's easy to miss a mistake a skier makes, like starting a turn around a gate too late, "bobbling" (unweighting a ski and momentarily losing balance, often in response to a rut or some other bit of bad terrain), or catching an edge. That's because these mistakes are usually made—and, at least by the world's top athletes, corrected—with rapid-fire speed. (Unless they're not corrected, which is when disaster ensues.) This is where ski commentators earn their living, pointing out these mini-errors with more enthusiasm than would seem merited by the fact that, at these speeds, that near-invisible mistake could lead to a mind-bogglingly bad crash. They know that, even if with an immediate recovery, that error lost the skier time … and maybe a medal. (A bad enough mistake—namely, missing a gate—can also get a skier disqualified).
And every piece of equipment counts. Skis, obviously, are the most important. Shorter skis are easier to turn, but slower; longer skis make bigger turns, but go faster. Each type of race event, therefore, has regulations for both the length and "turn radius" (the radius of the smallest turn the skis can make) of the skis.
But skis are just the start. You can bet that each top skier has a team of professionals doing all kinds of invisible-to-the-naked-eye things like layering skis with the right kind of wax (different kinds of waxes melt at different temperatures, so wax needs to be changed according to the day's weather), or making sure the "bevel" (the exact angle of the edge) of the ski is perfect. You might think wax is where it's at, but a ski's edges are just as important: The right angle and sharpness allow the skis to carve a nice, clean line into the snow (or, particularly on a racecourse, the ice). Not having that grip means slipping, sliding, and skidding—not ideal for a recreational skier, and far less so for a racer cutting across ice at 50 or 60 mph.
Then there are bindings, which have to be set in such a way that they won't pop off when a racer jams into a particularly aggressive turn—but will pop off in a crash. Race bindings often are raised off the ski on what's called a "plate," giving the racer a literal lift and, therefore, more of an angle into the snow. This can make for such a serious advantage that the Federation International de Ski, the sport's be-all and end-all, has limited the height of the ski, plate, and binding to 50 mm maximum.
Boots have to fit the feet tightly enough that every tiny movement translates to the skis, but not so snugly that they totally cut off circulation. (Like everything else, boots are typically custom-made for top-level athletes). Giant slalom suits might make an athlete look like the sixth Power Ranger, but they're actually worn to minimize air drag. Even poles are aerodynamic: They're curved around the middle, so that when a racer crouches into a tuck (that wind-resistance-minimizing position you'll see skiers doing whenever a turn is large enough, or the hill is flat enough, that they don't have to be literally on their toes), they meld around their torso.
Like I said, every millisecond counts. And way more than an athlete's comfort: I can say from experience that waiting at the top of a course in sub-degree temperatures and whistling wind, wearing nothing but a layer of long underwear and some Lycra, feet jammed in too-small boots, isn't exactly cozy. (In my next life, I'm coming back as a ski bunny.)
But, up there at the top, most racers aren't thinking about the cold. They're already thinking about their line. At the starting gate, even in their wind-whipped discomfort, Olympic athletes are usually playing through the course in their heads, thinking about one thing: what line they'll take. You'll even see some with their eyes closed, nodding their heads and waving their gloved hands back and forth along with the turns they're visualizing—almost as if in prayer. The "line" is everything. The commentators will refer to it constantly.
The meaning of a line is easy. It's the precise route a skier takes down a slope. And in normal, non-racing skiing, it is easy, something skiers choose all the time, without thinking about it: Usually, the line a skier will take will follow the gravity-established "fall line" (the line that, say, a ball would follow if you rolled it down the hill).
But, racecourse designers say, why be boring when you can have a little fun with Mother Nature, not to mention the skiers' ACLs? Racecourses will often have a turn or two that go against the natural fall line. Even the turns that don't do that will often alternate between predictable and tricky, so that just as a racer starts to get in a groove, a surprise arrives—a sweeping turn to the right, say, when the course's rhythm gets you thinking it's all medium turns straight down.
How do racers deal with these surprises? By studying the course (more on that in a moment) or, in the case of a downhill course (on which a skier gets three preliminary runs), by practicing. Once on the hill, the most important thing for them to do is to remember where the turns are, especially the trickiest and most surprising. Sure, you can just look a few gates ahead as you go—and that's what racers do. But in slalom and G.S., the gates come up so quickly, even looking ahead isn't quite enough; you have to know the course before even getting on it to set up your line in the best way possible. And with super-G and downhill events, inspecting the course can be even more important, since looking ahead doesn't always pan out: Thanks to rolls in the terrain or the arc of the slope, these courses often have a number of spots where you can't actually see the turn ahead until you're on it. You have to rely on memory alone.
The most efficient line, of course, is the one that gets you the closest to each gate. It's also usually a nice, full arc that lets the skis do what they do best: carve a clean line into the snow, rather than skidding or sliding. Thanks to shaped skis, which revolutionized racing in the mid-1990s, skis today aren't like the straight sticks of ye olden days—they want to turn. A good racer (or skier, for that matter) lets them, giving them a full arc before driving into the next turn.
But to help the skis do their thing, you have to "set up" a turn properly. "Setting up" refers to that shift in weight, from one ski to the other, that happens as one turn ends and a new turn begins. Ideally, you want to "set up" your turn high above the actual gate you're approaching, and finish your turn at the gate itself. Turning late means coming in too low, a mistake that, without fast correction, builds on itself, making for a sloppier and sloppier line throughout the whole course. This is also when skiers start to throw their skis around, rather than letting their turns finish naturally—something that usually comes hand in hand with shifting weight to the backseat (rather than the forward, athletic position skiers want) and skidding one's tails (if you see lots of snow spraying off the skis, something's not working efficiently). This usually leads to disaster. Bode Miller, with his devil-may-care, weight-in-the-backseat style, is the exception that proves the rule: When he can hold it together, he can blow other racers out of the water, thanks to his commitment to completely attacking the course, his super-dynamic angles, and almost superhuman strength. Watch him attack the Hahnenkamm in 2011 in typical Bode style—arms flailing, skis flying, weight way back—and come in second:
But when he loses it, he does so spectacularly. Or he miraculously saves himself:
Or he does what he did earlier today, in Sochi, where he finished eighth in the downhill event (Austria's Matthias Mayer took gold):
Miller was one of the fastest skiers on the top section but lost speed when he hit a gate on a right turn a bit further down.
"He pinched it off and went into the gate," Italian skier Dominik Paris said. "It was a critical section there."
With clouds hanging over the course during the race, conditions were different from the sun and shade of the training sessions.
"The visibility has changed a ton from the training run," Miller said. "The middle and bottom of the course slowed so much from the beginning of the race until I went that I thought you have to do something magical to win."
"I'm disappointed to not have a better result next to my name. It's one of those days where it's hard to say where the time went, because I skied pretty well. I was really aggressive, took a lot of risk," the 36-year-old added. "I made a couple of small mistakes, but not really mistakes that cost you a lot of time."
U.S. men's coach Sasha Rearick, though, hit on another point.
"It was a combination of things," Rearick said. "A little bit the weather — and wanting it too much."
And no, they haven't run the course before. With the exception of downhill, skiers don't get to pre-run the course. Instead, they get a one-hour visual inspection of the course ahead of their run; if you're watching at home, you might see athletes slowly working their way down the side of the course—never between the gates—and frequently stopping with their coaches to discuss the best line to take at each gate. If you're thinking an hour isn't much time to memorize a course that could determine an Olympic career, you're right. It's not.
Have we mentioned the conditions? The courses themselves are tricky enough, as we'll see. But, unlike almost any other sport—unlike bobsledding or ice skating, unlike luge or ice hockey, and, certainly, unlike track or swimming or, well, almost any part of the summer Olympics—ski racing is completely beholden to the elements. And it's winter, people. These elements are something to contend with.
Let's start with the obvious: It's cold. Really freaking cold. And even if racers get to hang out in a warming hut for a little while at the top, most choose to line up early in the starting gate, since it gives them time to focus and clear their heads. So you'll see many at the top with jacket and pants still on, unzipping them only at the last moment. But racing is unpredictable. The skier who goes down before you might crash out. Or there might be a problem with the course, and something has to be fixed before you go. Or the weather shifts and the race is held for a few minutes. All of it means that you might be pitted against the cold for a few minutes more than you—and your quickly numbing muscles—would like.
That explains some of the strange things you might see as the camera pans around the starting area: not just skiers closing their eyes and swanning their hands around in preparatory pantomime, but athletes stomping their feet like impatient horses and getting full-on rubdowns from coaches.
Wind is another issue. When you're going down a hill at 50, 70, even 90 mph, a blast of 20-mph wind can make for a serious slowdown (at least when we're talking in milliseconds).
Then there's the light. Bright days can create a serious snow glare, blinding a racer through even the best goggles. But gray days usually mean something far worse: "flat light," when there isn't enough natural light to show the shadows of the lumps, bumps, and ruts of a course so that the racer can adjust, or brace, accordingly. More difficult still, though, is a course that plunges the racer alternately into bright light and shadows, like the men's downhill at Sochi this year does. So, to the physical demands of the sport itself—pulling 3.5 g's (more than an astronaut during a launch) while hurtling down a hill at 90 mph, everything kept under control, barely, by one's strength alone—let's add the temporary blindness that comes from rapidly dilating and shrinking pupils.
Beyond the cold and light, there's the issue of the snow. This problem cuts two ways. First, obviously, not having enough snow is bad. But not having enough is the least of a resort's (or an Olympic venue's) problems, since the miracles of modern technology mean that snow can be made by the tons, water wastage be damned! In fact, snowmaking machines at Rosa Khutor, the mountain 25 miles outside of Sochi where the races actually are being held, have gone into overdrive, producing enough to blanket 500 football fields with two feet of snow (and using 230 million gallons of water in the process).
But even snowmaking relies on having the right temperatures and humidity, what jointly is called a "wet bulb" reading. In Rosa Khutor, wet bulb was just barely low enough (luckily) to make snow. And the fake fluff is no panacea, either: Most skiers can tell the difference between man-made snow and natural snow.
So you might think natural snow is ideal. But wait! Keep in mind here that a racer's dream course is one that's totally smoothed out, even iced over. (In fact, courses often are sprayed down with water as an ice-over before a race). Ruts—the big grooves in the snow that form after just a few skiers' runs—happen fast when snow is fresh, or soft. And they're the bane of every racer's existence. If a racer hits one at a high speed (and it's all at high speed) and isn't prepared, meaning she isn't keeping her knees soft and her body strong enough to "absorb" the up-and-down impact, she can bounce right out, causing a crash or a missed gate at worst, a millisecond or second delay at best.
So if it snows during the race itself—not enough that the race is canceled, but enough that there's a little accumulation—then ruts can form. Not to mention that, when enough of the white stuff starts to come down, visibility deteriorates. As a rule, racers need to look at least two or three gates ahead. But in a snow flurry, that goes by the wayside … as can the skiers, quite literally.
The unpredictability of the elements means something else, too: Ski racing, unlike the points-based system of a "style" sport like ice skating, is purely objective, judged only by a ticking clock—a matter, if would seem, of perfect competition. But it's not. One racer might get a nice, smooth course. The next racer gets snow and ruts.
That's worth repeating: Each racer experiences a different course. Not only because of wacky winter weather, or because of shifting light as the morning or afternoon wears on, but also because of the order in which the racers go down the hill, referred to as the "starting order."
For the Olympics, starting order is determined by the points from World Cup events before the games. For downhill and super-G, skiers who are ranked 16th through 30th get a start number of either 1 to 7 or 23 to 30, depending on a random draw, while the top 15 skiers draw a number between 8 and 22. And for slalom and G.S., the top seven skiers randomly draw positions from 1 to 7, while the rest of the skiers are ordered based on their points from previous World Cup games.
Downhill and super-G are one-shot deals: Whoever makes it down fastest, wins. But slalom and giant slalom have two courses (usually one in the morning, one in the afternoon), as does super-combined (where the first course is slalom, the second downhill). For all three, on the second run, the top 30 skiers start in reverse order, so the skier who came in 30th that morning starts first that afternoon, and so on. The winner is the skier whose combined time for both runs is the fastest.
Switching it up—and giving the No. 30 racer the No. 1 spot—is an attempt to even out the playing field (sometimes quite literally, as in the case of ruts). Needless to say, though, if conditions shift, it can go either in a racer's favor … or against. Racing isn't just about who skis the fastest. It's also about who adapts the fastest.
Not all events are made equal. There are no fewer than five separate events in Olympic ski racing. And while they're all on some level about going fast, athletes who succeed in the different events tend to bring pretty different skills to the slope.
The event with the shortest turns and those flagless poles is slalom. Slalom is the slowest event in racing. It's also one of the most exhilarating.
A slalom course doesn't have any big, sweeping turns. That means no getting up to 90 mph—but also no relaxing, no cruising, no "I'm just gonna ride on the scary speed I've built up and watch the world swish by," not even for a millisecond. Instead, gates come up one right after another. As a result, the event allows only the most fleet-footed and nimble to excel. Think you've got great fast-twitch muscle fibers? Then this is your game.
Not that slalom is just about brawn. In fact, the event might be even more about brains. The most "technical" of all the events, slalom is like a game of blitz chess. Because you're taking on so many turns, so quickly, your line has to be perfect. It has to be planned. And you have to be on it, and thinking, every millisecond of the way. That's made harder because, of course, not every turn is the same. You start to get into a rhythm, and then—boom!—you hit a flush (a combination of at least three pairs of gates, set vertically in a row, that force you to be super-light on your feet and keep your skis pointing straighter downhill than the other turns), or a hairpin (two pairs of gates set up vertically, forcing the skier instead to bang a sharp turn), or a combination of the above. This is such a serious part of slalom, in fact, that the FIS's own course-setting rules require "avoidance of monotonous series of standardised combinations of gates" (yep, really: 803.4.1).
Miss a gate, and you're disqualified. This is harder to spot than you'd think: Skiers want to pick the most efficient line possible, which means starting a turn high and finishing at the gate—which often means nicking a gate slightly with a shoulder. Overshoot by a tenth of a degree, though, and you might be nicking that gate with your ski, not your angle. If the ski goes around the wrong side of one of the poles making up the gate, you've "straddled" it, which means you're about to crash or, at the very least, get disqualified. Missing a gate altogether—by completely overshooting it or by misjudging a turn, both of which mistakes are easy to make given the speeds and the difficulties presented by the terrain—also gets you DQ'd.
And, no: Skiers aren't purposely "punching" the gates. They're doing something called "cross-blocking." A good racer keeps her upper body flowing straight downhill, right through the gates, while her skis swing from side to side. Luckily, a hand—protected by both glove and pole guard—is there to keep the gate from smacking said racer straight in the face. That action is called a cross-block. And it has the added benefit of punctuating each turn with a satisfying thunk. (So do the shin guards a racer wears, in slalom only, to protect her legs).
If you want to watch wunderkind Mikaela Shiffrin, by the way, you'll be viewing slalom. Level-headed, technical, and, oh yeah, only 18 years old, Shiffrin placed seventh once and first twice in the three World Cup slalom races ahead of the Olympics. She's been anointed as the one to watch. After all, she's the youngest American ever—male or female—to be World Champion in slalom, a title she scored last year. Part of it is that she's completely calm under pressure, particularly important in a discipline like slalom, which is as much mental as physical. (That's true of Mikaela both on the hill and off: "I'm not really seeing pressure as a negative," she told reporters at a teleconference at the end of January). That couldn't come across more clearly on the snow, where she always looks so cool and collected running gates—upper body tranquil, line perfectly efficient, her weight so balanced on her skis that even the worst ruts don't usually ruffle her—that you start to think, "I could do that. She can't even be going that fast." And then, of course, her time locks in … and it turns out that, no, no one else could do that.
Second: Giant slalom, or G.S. This is the classic, the in-between, the event where nearly every young racer gets her start. Since the turns are closest to the way most skiers already naturally ski on the hill, it's a good place to begin; slalom comes later—and the scary super-G and death-defying downhill much, much later. But that's not to denigrate G.S. While considered, like slalom, a "technical event," G.S. is where things start to get speedy; a high-level G.S. racer can go up to some 50 mph. The turns are much bigger, and so are the skis (current regulations require skis to be at least 195 cm). And while there's slightly more time to think (or recover) between turns than in slalom, choosing the right line remains super-important. Make your turn above a gate a hair too late—a standard error—and your skis skid out from under you as you scramble to make the turn for the next gate. As mentioned earlier, racers tend to look at least two or three gates ahead of them. Or try.
Then comes super-G, a relatively new event, added to the Olympic roster for the 1988 Calgary games. Turns in the super-G ar somewhere between those of G.S. and downhill. You've probably seen a clip of an athlete skiing a super-G course, since some of racing's top stars excel in this event: Austrian icon Hermann Maier made his career in super-G, and American Lindsey Vonn has no fewer than 20 World Cup victories in the event. The super-G favors the brave and the ballsy, the kind of person who can say, "Yeah, I see that ice rink surrounding this gate, and I'm still going to hit it at 70 mph."
Finally, what you've been waiting for: the downhill. This is, by far, the most terrifying kind of course of all. (Just take a spin down the Hahnenkamm with me for proof.) And it's the fastest. The 100 mph barrier was broken for the first time in a World Cup race last year by French skier Johan Clarey.
As you might expect, with downhill, it's just about balls-out speed—and just enough strategy not to seriously fuck up. Especially since fucking up is not only a matter of missing a gate or skiing out of the course, but of, you know, life or death. Unsurprisingly, downhill rewards those who are hellions on skis: Bode Miller, for example. Or, yes, Lindsey Vonn (28-time downhill winner on the World Cup circuit), who is so badass that she tore her ACL and MCL in February 2013, returned to competition that November, re-tore her ACL … and then raced in December anyway (let's note: without an ACL) and injured her knee again. Lindsey makes mistakes on the hill. Ruts sometimes bounce her; her line isn't always perfect. But more than most other racers, she makes those mistakes because she's pushing herself so hard to squeeze every bit of speed she can out of every single centimeter of snow.
Did we mention that downhill often includes jumps, too?
As you might expect, there have been lots of crazy downhill courses over the years. And the Russians have decided they will not be outdone: The two-mile men's course for Sochi is one of the gnarliest in Olympic ski history, with skiers reaching speeds of up to 80 mph and hitting a jump that'll launch them almost the length of a football field. As usual, athletes each got to run the course three times, once on Thursday, once on Friday, and once on Saturday. After his run, American skier Marco Sullivan, in his fourth Olympics, called the course the "toughest" the men had seen all year. Or, as Bode Miller said: "They didn't dumb it down much, which is nice." "Nice" is one way to put it. (Although, after his final training run on the course, Bode changed his tune, especially after seeing teammate Marco Sullivan almost crash on the course in training: "He almost killed himself," Bode said. "If you are not totally focused, this course can kill you.")
And it's not just the men who are getting pushed with the Sochi downhill. On Thursday, during the training run, only three women went before training was stopped. The problem: A jump was flinging skiers 150 feet, considered just too damn far for a sport that's not, you know, ski jumping. American skier Laurenne Ross told reporters: "You just get really high off the ground, the slope just drops off and you're still going straight. And that's the problem because you feel like you're just not going to come down." The jump was shaved slightly.
Finally, there's the super-combined, which combines the best of both worlds: a slalom run and a downhill run. Since the two events are so different, it gives athletes who have nailed both kinds of courses, no easy feat, a chance to shine.
And what if someone crashes out? As anyone who's ever been in a fender-bender knows, crashing sucks even at 35 mph when protected by metal and an airbag, never mind crashing at 60 or 70 mph with no protection at all. Some crashes can, of course, be deadly or career-ending. Which is why racers take precautions: You can't race without a helmet, and bindings are set so that they will, or should, pop off. But it doesn't always matter. Slam your head against ice, and even the best helmet can't protect you from the fact that your brain is slamming against your skull at the same time. Flip in the air, and even your skis coming off won't prevent your limbs from getting twisted. Bones are broken. Teeth are shattered. Or, in the most common injury for ski racers, the biggest threat to their careers, knee ligaments are shredded. This is what happened to Lindsey Vonn in February 2013:
It's not pretty, and it's part of why it's so damn impressive that racers do what they do: They're racing, in some cases, with their worst memories literally mapped onto their bodies. The longer they do it, the more of those they have. Every course becomes an exercise in memory suppression. I still remember when, back in my racing days, I went balls-to-the-wall on a steep, particularly icy G.S. course at Killington. I clipped a gate with my ski, flipped through the air, and landed on my back with such force I slid three more turns down the hill. My worst injury? Bone contusions. I still cried. I also never attacked a course with that kind of competitive aggression ever again. Something to add to the very long list of reasons why I write about the Olympics, rather than compete in them.
At these speeds, a racer is usually lucky to come out of a crash and be able to stand. Which might be why the rules governing crashes are actually fairly forgiving: If you haven't missed a gate, and you're able and willing to keep skiing, you can still finish the race. You're even allowed to do so on just one ski (for a racer, child's play!). At that point, of course, there's usually no hope of medaling. But no skier gets a hero's applause at the finish line like one who's crashed, lost a ski, and still decided to finish.
Like, of course, Mr. Miller, who (in)famously lost a ski in 2005 at the world championships at Bormio, and then continued—and looked better doing it than most people on two skis:
A bonus for accident-prone racers: According to FIS and Olympic rules, you're even allowed to fall through the finish line, as long as you fall between the last gate and the finish line and keep both skis on. In that case, throw out an arm with a pole first—the stopwatch stops rolling when "any part of the competitor's body or equipment stops the timekeeping system." Finally, racers get a break.
Freelance journalist Amanda Ruggeri, a former ski racer, writes for publications including the BBC, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. After nearly five years of living (and skiing) in Italy, she now lives in Brooklyn, where she has learned that when it snows, her new neighbors do not share her enthusiasm.
Photo via Getty.