Alpine Skiing in the Winter Olympics - dummies

Alpine Skiing in the Winter Olympics

Alpine skiing is one of the most popular sports in the Winter Olympics and gets a large portion of the television coverage. Winning in alpine skiing is a based on two things: speed and staying on the right course. Alpine skiing has been an Olympic favorite since 1936. Alpine skiing at the winter Olympics consists of the following five disciplines.

[Credit: Corbis Digital Stock]
Credit: Corbis Digital Stock

Downhill skiing

Downhill skiing is the speed event of the alpine skiing. Downhill courses have long straightaways, difficult turns, steep passes and hills that send the skier flying over bumps through the air. The extreme speed of the downhill course (up to 90 mph on some courses) puts the racers at great risk of injury. Although there are gates on the downhill course, they are only there to lay out the path of course and they don’t require the skier to make rapid turns.

The downhill course is often sprayed with water or salt to increase icing. Though it seems like that would make things more dangerous, this actually makes the course safer by eliminating the deep ruts that can develop along a course. The icing does, however, increase the speed of the course.

Slalom skiing

The slalom is the most technical of the alpine skiing disciplines. The skier must make his way through a course that contains multiple direction changes and a series of poles (called gates) that are spaced close enough to force the skier to weave in and out of gates in tight turns. Although the skiers don’t achieve the fast speeds of Downhill event, the difficulty of weaving in and out of the gates often throws the skiers off the course. Skiers run through the course two times and the time for the two runs is added together to determine the winner.

In all the slalom events, the skiers’ skis must take a track on the correct side of the gate. To gain more speed, the skiers will often take a tight track that causes them to crash through the poles banging them out of the way (a technique called blocking).

Giant slalom

Giant slalom is one of the more technical alpine skiing events. Giant slalom courses have 46-58 gates for women and 56-70 gates for men. The giant slalom course is longer than that of the slalom and the gates are not as tightly placed allowing the skier to pick up more speed. Skiers run through the course two times and the time for the two runs is added together to determine the winner.

The skis for slalom events are much different from those for downhill. Slalom skis are short and often bent. Downhill skis, on the other hand, are longer and wider which gives the skier more stability.

Super Giant Slalom

The Super Giant Slalom, also called the Super G, combines the speed of Downhill skiing with the technical precision of the slalom sports. The skier maneuvers his way through a combination of gates in a single run. The gates are spaced apart in such a way that the skier is able to achieve much higher speeds than are possible in slalom and giant slalom. Although the courses are more winding than Downhill skiing, the skiers frequently reach speeds of 55-60 mph. This difficulty level makes the Super Giant Slalom one of the most exciting of the alpine events.

All of the alpine events are inherently dangerous. To reduce some of the risks, course designers lay out safety nets and pads in dangerous areas. However, it is not uncommon for serious injury or even death to occur.

Alpine skiing combined

Combined is an alpine event in which each skier runs multiple courses. In the Olympics, the combined event consists of two different courses: one downhill and two slalom runs. The run time for each course is combined together and the skier with the fastest combined score wins.