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What Is Alpine Skiing? | Winter Olympic Guide For Beijing 2022

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Alpine Skiing explained. What is it? What are the different events? When's it on at the Winter Olympics in Beijing?

Alpine Skiing is perhaps the most recognisable event on the Winter Olympics calendar. First debuting in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics of 1936, skiers have been hurling themselves down icy black runs – all in the search of an elusive golden medal – for just short of a century.

Although Alpine Skiing wasn’t included in the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix (1924), it has quickly risen to become the most anticipated event of the games; kind of like what the Sprint event is to the summer Olympics, if you like. Bode Miller, Mikaela Shiffrin and Dider Cuche have all risen to fame on the unrelentingly icy courses of the Alpine events.

A shot of the Stade Olympique de Chamonix, from 1924. Photo: Gay Couttet

History Of The Alpine Ski Event

We can trace the roots of skiing all the way back to over 8,000 years ago, where the Sámi people of Scandinavia used skis as a mode of transportation around the cold and inhospitable terrain of northern Scandinavia.

It wasn’t until 1767 before we saw skis used for competition. This competitive spirit came in the form of the Norwegian army turning skiing into a sport by creating courses down short slopes, through forests and flat snowfields. This, however, was something that would more closely resemble modern day cross country skiing.

“More and more downhill ski races began to pop up around the globe”

As ski design progressed in the 1800s, we began to see recreational downhill ski races being organised in the United States and Norway. These early ski races happened in the 1860s. As ski developed – especially with the invention of cambered skis and metal constructions – more and more downhill ski races began to pop up around the globe.

Alpine Skiing has progressed from strength to strength since these fairly modest beginnings. Some major technical improvements have really helped skiers reach breakneck speeds while arcing high g-force turns. Most notable of these was the invention of sidecut to skis, which quickly replaced traditionally straight skis. Sidecut gave carving skis an hourglass shape which, when turned on edge, made for extremely easy turn initiation and strong edgehold.

Women's GS course, Soelden, Austria, 2011. Credit: U.S. Ski Team/Tom Kelly

The Competition Format For Alpine Ski At The Olympics

Let’s take a look at the competition format of Alpine Skiing, and why we predict it to be one of the most exciting events of the Beijing 2022 Olympics. The competition is split up into 11 separate events, with a total of 33 medals up for grabs.

The racing formats are Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, and Slalom. The main difference between the four is the course, with downhill offering a faster course, with spaced gates, and slalom offering a more technical course, with extremely tight gates.

There are also two additional events – The Alpine Combined and Mixed Team – which combine a few (or all) of the formats to test an athlete’s all-round ability.

Photo: Andrej Šporn at the 2010 Winter Olympic downhill. Credit: Jon Wick

Downhill: Downhill courses have been designed for maximum speed and knee-jarring corners. The F.I.S say that a typical downhill course is a test of “technique, courage, speed, risk and physical condition”. This statement is right on the money, as skiers are known to reach over 100mph on gradients over 85 degrees (and that’s before we even mention the heart-in-mouth jumps.

Super-G: As the name suggests, Super Giant Slalom is essentially a stretched out Giant Slalom with a vertical drop of 400-650 metres for both men and women. The gates are spaced between 6 – 8 metres apart, which gives a more technical challenge (compared to the Downhill), while still serving up some breakneck speeds.

A big part of Super-G is that athletes aren’t allowed a practice run before their timed run, meaning they only get to see the course in the morning, and do their best to run the course in their heads before the big event.

“A typical downhill course is a test of ‘technique, courage, speed, risk and physical condition’”

Giant Slalom: While Downhill and Super-G are speed events, Giant Slalom and Slalom are the technical events. Giant Slalom is made up of two different courses, usually on the same ski run, with around 56-70 gates being used in total. Although the Giant Slalom is considered a technical event, it’s still extremely fast and demanding for the athletes which results in a great spectator eye candy.

Slalom: The real technique tester. Slalom features an average of one gate per second that skiers have to hit (usually in a red/blue order) the whole way down the 180-220 metre course. This tight course means that skiers need to be precise and powerful in their turns as they carve from gate to gate.

You then have the Alpine Combined event, where skiers from all different disciplines battle it out to win a single medal. Similar to how sport climbing combined bouldering, speed climbing and sport climbing in the summer Olympics, the Alpine Combined shows who the best all-round skier is, for both males and females.

The final event is the Mixed Team event, where two males and two females from each nation compete against each other in a parallel slalom event. The first nation to win three races advances to the next heats, to compete against the winner of the other heats – the classic knockout competition, if you like.

The Alpine Ski Courses At Beijing 2022

There hasn’t been much information about the Alpine event courses for the Beijing Olympics (we wouldn’t expect anything less from this host nation, of course) but we do know that it’ll be hosted at the all-new, cutting-edge Yanqing Alpine Ski Centre.

This ski resort sits in a mountainous region around 50 miles north of Beijing and, because of this, the resort – and the Olympics – will rely entirely on man-made snow. While Westerners haven’t seen much of the course in person (the 2020 World Cup stop at Yanqing had to be cancelled due to the ‘Rona), it has passed a formal race (as is required by the Olympic committee).

Photo: Caitlin McFarlane (FRA) competes on Alpine Skiing Women’s Giant Slalom during the Youth Winter Olympic Games 2020 , at Lausanne, Switzerland. Credit: Stephane Kempinaire

Skiers To Look Out For At Beijing 2022

Having just snagged the record for winning the most world cup Slalom races, there isn’t a more dominant skier on the Alpine circuit than U.S. poster girl Mikaela Shiffrin. Mikaela is an extremely technical skier with her preferred events being Slalom and Giant Slalom (where she won gold in PyeongChang 2018).

Looking to dethrone Mikaela are the likes of Lara Gut and Sofia Gotti. Both Lara and Sofia have been performing extremely well on the World Cup circuit.

Alexis Pinturault racing Giant Slalom in the 2018 Olympics. Credit: CNOSF/KMSP

Things are looking equally competitive over on the mens’ side, too. After a few of the old guard (we’re talking  Marcel Hirscher and Ted Ligety) recently announced their retirements, there’s a range of competitors looking to snag their podium positions. These skiers include Frenchmen Mathieu Faivre, who is coming off the back of winning a GS gold in the World Cup, and Alexis Pinturault.

And we here at Mpora can’t overlook the British hopeful, Dave ‘The Rocket’ Ryding. Always a threat on a pair of Slalom skis, Dave has podiumed twice during last year’s World Cup and could be a real contender for Britain’s first Alpine metal when he takes to the Slalom course.

Key Alpine Ski Terminology

While Alpine skiing isn’t quite like the Slopestyle and Big Air events in terms of unfamiliar jargon, there are still a few terms that are worth knowing before you get lost in the commentators’ excitement. Common names for technical sections of the course, for example, are hairpins, flushes and bananas. These terms often mean the course is changing in direction or rhythm, in an effort to test the athletes’ technique.

Photo: Anna Swenn Larsson races Charlotte Chable at the Meribel World Cup. Credit: Méribel Tourisme

Snow conditions have a big influence on the speed the athletes can get down the hill, and these are often bundled into sometimes confusing jargon. A good example of this is when the snow becomes rutted. Rutted snow is when a deep channel begins to form in the snow, caused by multiple skiers cutting through it. Rutted snow causes a bumpier ride, and therefore slower times.

Then you’ve got the weather conditions that may not affect the snow conditions on the day, but it will play a big part on the athletes’ mental game. The most obvious of these being ‘flat light’. Flat light is, as the name suggests, when the sun has no way of breaking through the clouds, leading to a lack of shadows which means the skiers can’t see the tiny bumps and ruts that have formed on the course.

Where And When To Watch The Olympics

The Alpine Skiing events run from 6 – 19 February, starting with the Downhill and finishing with the Mixed Team Parallel Final. Worldwide viewers will be able to watch every event live through the Eurosport and Discovery streaming services.

UK Viewers: The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics will be shown live on BBC One and BBC Two in the UK. You’ll be able to stream the Winter Olympics online in realtime and catch up with full broadcasts on BBC iPlayer.

Euro Viewers: Eurosport will be showing all of the events on their online and TV services. Otherwise, each European nations’ national TV channel will be showing the Olympics live.

U.S. Viewers: NBC owns the rights to all Winter Olympic coverage in the United States. You can view the action through either their online player, or through regular cable television in the States.

Header image credit: Manuellopez.ch

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