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Originally published December 21, 2009 at 3:18 PM | Page modified December 21, 2009 at 3:18 PM

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Alpine Skiing | 'The Winter Olympics'

An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Guide to the Winter Olympics

Prepare for the 2010 Games with excerpts and spectator's guides from "The Winter Olympics," by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.

Excerpt chapters

Olympics Spectator's Guide

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You know they’re going fast. You know they’re turning sharp. You know they’re hanging it all out there. But you really don’t appreciate how fast or how sharp or how far out there until you’re on the snow next to them.

That’s a lesson my friend and fellow ringhead (Olympic journalist) Elliott Almond and I learned one day long ago on the slopes of Mount Hood.

It was a sunny day in July in 1997, and skiers were making tracks all over the Palmer Glacier high on the side of the mountain. Thanks to its high elevation and cold temperatures, the alpine ski venue is open all summer, and on this day, it would serve as a launching pad for Picabo Street, recovering from a crash at Vail, Colorado, that basically destroyed her knee.

She was, I noted at the time, at risk of becoming just an asterisk in U.S. ski history. Yes, she’d won nine World Cup downhills and consecutive downhill titles, not to mention a silver medal at the Lillehammer Games. And sure, she was the solitary flare shot up from the sinking ship that was the U.S. ski team in the long dry spell of the post–Phil Mahre era.

But her most impressive asset—an ability to hurtle down mountainsides at 90 mph with absolutely no fear, in spite of a couple of horrendous injuries—was now at risk. Ski racers who run the speed events, downhill and super-G, know only one speed: borderline reckless. The best of the best can hang their chin right out over their ski tips and simply fly, shutting off that primeval part of the brain that says, “Stop or you’re gonna die.”

At some point in their careers, most of them suffer the dreaded knee blowout. And only a few of them make it all the way back. Physical recovery is difficult. The mental part is even tougher, the body having this quaint thing about not wanting to repeatedly flirt with death.

So Elliott and I were here to watch the legend get back on skis for the first time and see how she looked. We were there to check in on the legend, to proclaim it alive and flying or dead on arrival.

We got there a little early, rode up the Palmer Glacier lift, and stood in the shadow of a lava rock, shivering. Street showed up in a red wool “A-Squad” ski-team vest, said a few words to us and a TV crew attempting to stand there on the slope, and then did what Picabo does when you put her on the side of a mountain.

Disappeared.

We watched her big Rossignols point toward Timberline Lodge, make a couple of quick turns, and then point straight downhill. She was gone before we could look at each other. I stood there for a second, stunned. This wasn’t a ski racer in top form. It was a top ski racer just getting off her sickbed.

When you see it live, the speed carried by downhillers is phenomenal. When they pass close by at full pace, you actually feel the suction they create by slicing through the wind, their skis issuing a thrilling pfffft! as they cross the snow at jet speed.

At the bottom, Picabo declared her first runs back a success, saying it felt good, and then she started talking about the World Cup and cut to the chase: “I want my title back.”

She was serious, and she went for it. Alas, the World Cup crown was never again in the cards for Picabo, the Triumph, Idaho, daughter of hippie parents who captured the world’s attention when she came from nowhere to win a medal in Lillehammer.

She competed strongly at the World Cup that season but was not a favorite to repeat her medal performance at Nagano, only 14 months after her potentially career-ending injury. So all she did was go out and win a gold medal in the super-G.

Watching Street’s recovery, her unforgettable gold medal run, and then her resiliency as she overcame injuries from another, even more destructive, crash a year later, turned a lot of people into fans of Picabo Street—and, by extension, of ski racing.

Once you get up close and personal with the sport, it’s easy to see why alpine skiing is the signature snow sport of any Olympics, and why the downhill is perhaps its marquee event.

It’s spectacular for spectators, with full-camera coverage on race courses bringing the astonishing speed and strength of alpine racers into viewers’ living rooms. It’s also extremely user friendly: No complicated rules to understand. No French judges to be bribed by corrupt Russians. Just the fastest one down the hill wins.

It’s also downright dangerous.

Alpine skiing is a sport with little margin for error. It’s a knife-edge balance between being just in control and just out of it, the latter condition often leading to severe injuries and, in rare but persistent cases, even death.

The greatest practitioners of the sport are equal parts precise and maniacal, the results often unforgettable.

I think back through many years of covering ski racing, and the epic heroes of the slopes—and, especially, their performances under the Olympic rings—leap to mind: Street shocking the world in Nagano. Austrian superman Hermann Maier going airborne in the men’s downhill at Hakuba during the same Games, then coming back three days later to win the super-G.

The graceful, resilient, and all-time clutch performances of Norway’s Kjetil André Aamodt as he notched eight medals at four Olympics. The class and spark of Croatian phenom Janica Kostelić, whose Salt Lake Games medal four-peat stands alone as the greatest 10 days of skiing by any alpine skier, anywhere, anytime.

It is one of those sports that I usually offer up as an answer when fans ask about the don’t-miss events to witness in person at a Winter Games. You simply cannot relate to the speed, daring, and thrill of the event by watching it on TV.

Most people are afraid to drive at 90 mph. Alpine skiers go that fast on wisps of metal, plastic, and wood, with only a thin speed suit separating them from trees, cliffs, rocks, and possible paralysis.

Alpine racing is as keen a test of mettle as you’ll find in winter sports. And it’s an undeniable cornerstone of any Winter Games.

Medals are won on ice rinks, curling sheets, skating ovals, and bobsled tracks. But it is in the mountains where legends are born.

SPECTATOR’S GUIDE

Modern alpine ski events in the Olympics mirror those of the World Cup, a winter-long series of races organized and controlled by the International Ski Federation, or FIS. The races are the downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G, and alpine combined.

Field of Play

One of the allures of downhill skiing is its great diversity of venues. No single ski race is ever the same from one locale to another, simply because they’re competed on mountainsides, each of which is unique. Ski races typically unfold on the slopes of established ski areas: A giant swath of the ski terrain is essentially roped off, from top to bottom. From there, course setters—often former ski racers well versed in the sort of turns, jumps, and terrain transitions skiers can physically make—choose a path down the mountainside, marking it with “gates,” made of fiberglass poles inserted into the snow. Placement and distance between the gates varies widely depending on the type of race.

In addition to the wild-card element of varying topography, weather and snow conditions play perhaps a larger role in ski racing than in any other winter sport.

Weather can change dramatically during a race. An approaching warm front can turn a fast, icy course to soft and mushy between the time the first racer and 20th racer take the course. Visibility also can change quickly and dramatically.

Sometimes, where you start (in a race starting order is determined by a draw; second runs are usually run in reverse order of finish from the first run, with the fastest first-run competitors skiing last) may be every bit as important as how you perform: Conditions conducive to very fast times for early starters might become impossible to match later on. This is the crapshoot element of this and other alpine sports. Unlike their ice-based rivals, snow sports remain firmly under the control of the elements.

Format, Rules, and Strategy

The downhill and super-G are known as “speed” events, while the slaloms fall into the “technical” skiing category. Combined is a mixture of both. Most skiers excel at one category or the other. Only the choicest few can lay down winning times in both disciplines. And they become the masters of the international ski-racing universe.

The downhill, one of the most gripping events in alpine skiing, has become a signature competition for the Olympics, thanks to some memorable performances. It’s one of the true gut-check events in competitive sports, with skiers hurtling at speeds approaching 90 mph (145 kilometers per hour), often barely under control, down mountainsides for long distances.

It’s also one of the easiest races to follow for spectators: It’s one run only, and the fastest one down wins. Races are timed to within one hundredth of a second, and that’s sometimes the margin of victory over a course that takes more than 2 minutes to run. Tiny mistakes, needless to say, are magnified, and can mean the difference between gold and a bottom-20 finish.

Gates for downhill courses are spaced far apart, creating wide, sweeping turns to accommodate the speed of the racers. Most courses have at least one jump, where skiers fly long distances through the air while remaining in a tucked position. As if all this weren’t difficult enough, downhill offers an additional challenge: Because the courses are so long and cover such a wide range of altitudes, snow conditions can vary greatly from one part of the course to the next within a single racer’s run. Skiers have to adjust their balance quickly and repeatedly to accommodate for very icy or very grippy snow.

It’s notable that the downhill, because it’s so dangerous (racers have been killed in spectacular crashes on the World Cup circuit), is the only alpine ski event for which training runs are allowed.

The other speed event, the super-G (short for super giant slalom) is similar to a downhill, except that the gates (minimum number of turns is 35 for men, 30 for women) are placed closer together and the overall course is shorter. It’s also a single-run event: the fastest time wins.

In the giant slalom, on a course even shorter than a super-G with more closely bunched gates (alternating blue and red), skiers make more rapid, rhythmic turns down two different courses on the same slope. Typically, one run is held in the morning, the other in the afternoon, with the top 30 finishers from the first run advancing to the second. The lowest combined time of the two runs is the winner.

The slalom, run on a short course with gates very close together, is ski racing’s most technical—that is, quick-turning—race. Slalom skiers are constantly turning between closely bunched gates (55 to 75 for men, 45 to 65 for women), usually crashing through them with their shins and forearms. As long as their skis go around the gate poles, it’s all legal. But if you miss a gate, you have to go back up and around it, which means you’ll be out of the running. Slalom thus is a bit of a game of chicken with the spring-loaded gates: You want to cut as close to their base as you can, but cut it too close and you’re all done. Like giant slalom, the slalom is run on two different courses on the same slope, on the same day. The lowest total time wins.

The super combined is a hybrid event, combining one run of downhill followed by two slalom runs, usually the following day. The times are added together, with the lowest total time winning. It’s a true test of total skier ability; even those with the very fastest downhill times can’t win the super combined without posting better-than-respectable times in the slalom, and vice versa.

Training and Equipment

Training for alpine racing, not surprisingly, is intensely lower-body oriented. Ski racers undergo leg-strength training that borders on brutal: everything from intensive weight and resistance training to cycling and performing nonstop, two-footed hops over tall obstacles to the point of exhaustion. Endurance is also critical, creating the need for constant aerobic work as well. The fastest racers are those who have the strength to stay in perfect form—that tight-ball tuck position at the end of the downhill is more difficult to maintain than you can possibly imagine—all the way to the finish line.

Equipment also plays a crucial role—perhaps more so than in any other Olympic sport. Fast skis—those “tuned” perfectly for the conditions by sharpening and dulling edges and using the proper type of wax—are essential. Not even the world’s best skiers will win on a day where they’ve chosen the wrong boards for their run.

Most skiers thus travel with entire truckloads of skis suited for all manner of conditions, and the top-level racers have their own personal ski technicians, usually provided by one of the ski manufacturers signed on as sponsors. Note that ski technology has changed radically in the past 15 years. With the advent of wider, “shaped” skis that are broader at the tips and tail than the old straight-arrow skis of yore, most competitive racers are skiing on shorter skis than ever before. Whereas long racing skis of up to 215 centimeters were the norm through the 1980s, most racers are running on skis as short as the 180-centimeter range in “speed” events today, and slalom racers will be found on skis as short as 160 centimeters.

HISTORY’S HITS AND MISSES

Ask any downhill speed freak: Alpine skiing is just a natural evolution from crossing the flats. Humans figured out how to ski across flat surfaces—no doubt somewhere in Norway—thousands of years ago. But only in the past 150 years or so has that pursuit evolved into downhill skiing, using wider skis with sharp edges to gain a foothold while, in essence, making a series of quick, underfoot traverses down a steep slope.

Downhill skiing first caught on in the Alps of Europe, spreading to North America in the 1920s and 1930s when European ski instructors began emigrating to America to spread word of the “Arlberg technique” of modern, linked turns, developed in the Alps. The invention of ski lifts—modeled after banana-crane pulleys in Central America—in the late 1930s vastly increased the popularity of the sport: no more “upclimb” to get you on the “downhill.”

The concept of racing on downhill skis popped into the minds of skiers just about as soon as there were enough of them to race and has been going strong ever since. The first widely recognized international downhill competition, the Roberts of Kandahar Cup, was launched in Switzerland in 1911. The first international slalom contest was held in Switzerland in 1915.

The Olympics were a logical next step. Alpine skiing was added to the program for the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Games, with an alpine combined (downhill plus slalom) for both men and women. More events were added in subsequent Games, with the first full slate of alpine events appearing in the 1948 St. Moritz Olympics. (Interestingly, alpine combined, the inaugural event, would disappear from the schedule that same year, as soon as individual slalom and downhill were added to the schedule. It did not reappear as a combined event until the Calgary Games of 1988, when the super-G was also added for the first time.)

Thrice as Nice: The Jean-Claude Killy “Shadow Man” Controversy

If you’re looking for the guy who had the best single Olympics on the slopes, maybe ever, look no further than French legend Jean-Claude Killy, who won gold in the downhill, giant slalom, and slalom, all on the home slopes of Grenoble in 1968.

And it came with Killy under the sort of intense pressure only an Olympic athlete who is a prohibitive favorite in the host nation can feel. Killy, in 1968 a wiry 24-year-old Val d’Isere native—and playboy of some repute—had competed in Innsbruck in 1964, his best finish being a fifth in giant slalom. But going into the Grenoble Games, Killy had won 12 of the 16 previous seasons’ World Cup races and was widely favored to capture the fabled “alpine sweep,” which only Austrian Anthony “Toni” Sailer had accomplished before (in 1956 at Cortina d’Ampezzo).

Killy, whose multiple lucrative sponsorship contracts had drawn the ire of IOC officials and put his status as an amateur in jeopardy, put on bib number 14 and captured the downhill first, beating countryman Guy Périllat by eight-hundredths of a second. The second race, the giant slalom, was easier, with Killy beating Switzerland’s Willy Favre by more than 2 seconds in the first Olympic grand slalom to tabulate the results of two separate runs.

The third gold, in the slalom, was and always will be controversial. On a foggy day at Chamrousse, near Grenoble, Killy, skiing 15th, led the field after the first run, only to see the fog thicken. Skiing first in the second run, he led again until a Norwegian skier finally bettered his time. Then, a miracle: The Norwegian was disqualified for missing two gates.

Only Killy’s closest rival, Austria’s Karl Schranz, remained a threat. But Schranz, skiing through the thick fog, pulled off the course midway through his run, never appearing at the fog-shrouded finish line. He insisted that he had seen a mysterious, shadowy figure cross his path. He was granted a second run, which was picture-perfect and 24 hundredths of a second faster than Killy’s.

French fans were in an uproar as Schranz enjoyed the spoils of victory, including a center-stage spot at the postrace press conference. Hours later, however, a jury of appeal voted 3–1 to disqualify Schranz for missing two gates before the alleged man-on-the-course incident, ruling that he should not have been granted a second run. Killy was declared the winner, and Austrians, who insisted that some Frenchman really had interfered with Schranz, throwing off his timing and causing him to miss the gates, are ticked off to this day.

Schranz, accused by the French of making up the mystery-man story after missing a gate, not only didn’t win but didn’t get a medal. (He later insisted that he was “hypnotized” by the shadowy figure, and indeed might have missed a gate.) It ruined what would have been a rare podium sweep for Austria, as Schranz’s countrymen, Herbert Huber and Alfred Matt, captured the silver and bronze that day.

Killy, of course, went on to international fame and fortune, signing dozens of global endorsement contracts and becoming the most famous ski racer in history up to that time. The Frenchman would go on to serve as copresident of the organizing committee for France’s next Winter Games, in Albertville in 1992, and also as an adviser to the organizers of the Turin Games, just across the Alps in Italy, in 2006.

Toni Sailer’s Alpine Sweep

Austrian superstar Toni Sailer’s unprecedented three-gold “alpine sweep” in 1956 will long be remembered not only because it was a first, but for the spectacular distance the Kitzbuehel native put between himself and the rest of the field in the process. Sailer, known as the “Blitz from Kitz,” covered Cortina’s 71-gate giant slalom course on Tondi di Faloria an astonishing 6.2 seconds faster than countryman Andreas Molterer—still the largest margin in Olympic alpine skiing history.

Two days later, he won the slalom by 4 seconds and then took on the downhill, which almost proved his undoing. Moments before the race, Sailer broke a ski-boot strap and couldn’t find a replacement until an Italian team trainer lent him his own. Then, at the top of an icy course that sent eight other skiers off on stretchers, Sailer nearly crashed, landing a jump on the tails of both skis but pulling off a split-legged recovery that kept him on course and sent him into history, winning by 3.5 seconds. He reportedly gave one gold medal to each of his parents, saving the third one for himself.

Franz Klammer: The Banana-Suited Blur

To this day, it remains the greatest Olympic downhill run of all time.

Hometown favorite Franz Klammer of Austria, skiing before an Innsbruck throng estimated at 60,000, nipped defending champ and favored racer Bernhard Russi of Switzerland with a harrowing downhill run during which he appeared to be out of control much of the time and, a number of times, actually was.

Footage of the now-famous run—by ABC, which provided the first-ever top-to-bottom coverage of an Olympic downhill—shows the banana-yellow-suited Klammer careening all over the 3,020-meter (9,960 feet) course, posting only the third fastest split time of the day at the midway point—nineteen-hundredths of a second slower than Russi.

At that point, Klammer, in one of the great win-or-perish finishes in Olympic history, simply poured it on, taking chance after chance in a classic example of hanging it all out there and then some. He nearly bit it near the end. On the course’s final left-hand turn, Klammer went airborne and came down awkwardly on the tails of both skis at the same time. Somehow, he willed himself through the turn, and went on to make up time on the bottom of the course to nip Russi by a third of a second.

Russi, who had the top time before Klammer’s run, recalled years later that, feeling the energy of the crowd in the finish area, he was torn between rooting for Klammer and for himself while the Austrian ripped down the mountain.

Klammer’s honest assessment of his run? “I thought I was going to crash all the way.”

Russi was the first to congratulate Klammer, aka “The Kaiser,” who became such a national hero in Austria that when he was left off the national ski team four years later, a contrite team manager had to explain the decision on national television.

Flashes in the Pan—Brilliant, but Still Flashes

Alpine skiing in general—and the downhill in particular—has been a European-dominated event. But two breakout performances by Americans will long live in the world’s collective ski memory.

Approaching the 1984 Sarajevo Games, the name Bill Johnson was really on no one’s radar screen. What attention was paid to U.S. skiing at the time was all devoted to the Mahre twins, Phil and Steve, competing for medals in the slalom. No American man had ever won an Olympic slalom, and nobody expected that record to change in Sarajevo.

But Johnson, who had won his first World Cup downhill at Wengen, Switzerland, several weeks before the Olympics, actually posted the fastest training times on the long, mostly straight course at Mt. Bjelasnica, prompting him to boldly predict a victory. After several weather delays, Johnson went out and backed up his words, winning the downhill in true Joe Namath fashion.

Johnson would never win another major race. Attempting a comeback at age 41 in 2001, he suffered a major crash that left him in a coma and seriously injured. He recovered, but continues to battle long-term physical damage from the crash.

Equally shocking was Alaskan Tommy Moe’s gold medal run in Lillehammer in 1994, especially coming, as it did, immediately after race leader and hometown hero Kjetil André Aamodt’s then-first-place run. Moe won the gold by four hundredths of a second, then captured a silver in the super-G. Like Johnson, he would never again win a World Cup or Olympic race.

The Mahre Twins

By the time the Sarajevo Olympics rolled around, Washington natives Phil Mahre, the three-time World Cup champion (and, at that point, unquestionably the greatest U.S. skier of all time), and twin brother, Steve, were at the twilights of their careers. They began the Olympics poorly, finishing out of the running in the giant slalom and prompting Phil to get into a nasty tiff with U.S. journalists, who questioned how hard he was trying and, in at least one case, urged him to simply go home.

They got their revenge in the slalom, where Phil captured gold and Steve, making an all-out effort to best his brother’s time and win a gold medal on his second run, hung on for second place. Later, the twins learned that they’d captured their medals while Phil’s wife, Holly, had given birth to the couple’s first son.

Someone asked him which was more important, the medal or his son.

“I basically told them it was a ridiculous question.”

That son, Alex, went on to become an accomplished ski racer as well. The twins retired in 1985 at age 26 and today run a ski-race clinic at Deer Valley, Utah. Phil can often be found skiing at White Pass, his home mountain near Yakima, Washington, or at Timberline on Oregon’s Mount Hood.

At this writing, Phil was attempting to make a ski-racing comeback—at age 50, explaining simply, “I’m a competitor. I still have a passion for skiing.”

Greene Reign

When most people think of blazing fast alpine skiers from Canada, those “Crazy Canucks” come to mind: Ken Read, Steve Podborski, Dave Irwin, and Dave Murray, who unexpectedly rose to prominence on the World Cup circuit in the mid-1970s to early ’80s, posting 107 top-10 World Cup finishes from 1978 to 1984.

But of that group, widely credited with putting Canadian alpine skiing on the map, only Podborski would win an Olympic medal—a bronze in the downhill at Lake Placid in 1980.

The fact is that Canadian alpine skiers had been on the map for a long time, thanks to Nancy Greene. A native of Rossland, British Columbia, Greene was Canada’s first great ski racer, winning gold and silver medals in the giant slalom and slalom at Grenoble in 1968 and overall World Cup titles in 1967 and 1968. She posted 13 World Cup victories in her career—still a Canadian record.

In 1999 Greene was named Canada’s female athlete of the century. Today, she and her husband operate a lodge at Sun Peaks, near Kamloops, B.C., where visitors with good timing might find themselves on the chair lift next to a true skiing legend.

The Hermannator Returns from the Dead

Long after he fades from the scene, Hermann Maier, the former bricklayer from Flachau, Austria, will be the subject of many a tall tale told around an après-ski bar. “The Hermannator,” as he is widely known in Europe, dominated the World Cup for three seasons in the late 1990s, winning three overall titles and ruling the circuit like no one before him, or since.

But he’ll be remembered most for his performance at the Nagano Games of 1998, where Maier, in a single week, wore the cloak of both the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory.

The agony came first—in an incident now known in Austria simply as “the Sturz” (the crash). In the downhill at Hakuba, Maier came around a turn too fast (as usual) and simply went airborne. With his arms circling cartoonishly, his body seemed to just keep gaining altitude as he soared sideways down the steep slope—about 60 yards in the air—turning completely upside down in the process.

He eventually landed, with a sickening impact, on his left shoulder and head, then tumbled tail over heels, his skis flying off, before crashing completely through two mesh crash fences.

Some people in the crowd, watching on a video monitor, feared he was dead. But Maier immediately popped up from the crater his body had created, clicked back into his skis and went down the hill, seemingly ready to race again. Three days later, he raced in the super-G and not only finished but won, by more than a half second over Didier Cuche of Switzerland. Three days after that, the patched-up Maier took to the hill again and won his second gold medal in the giant slalom.

Said Austrian teammate Hans Knauss, “He is for sure not one of us.”

After a 2001 motorcycle accident that nearly destroyed one of his legs and could have killed him, Maier made another amazing recovery. He narrowly missed the 2002 Salt Lake Games, but 18 months after the crash, skiing with a foot-long titanium rod in his leg, he resumed the World Cup circuit and, incredibly, won his fourth overall World Cup title the following year.

He was on the Olympic medal stand again in 2006, claiming a silver in the super-G and bronze in the giant slalom at the Turin Games.

MEN’S RECORD BOOK: ALPINE SKIING

For North American ski racing fans, occasional standout performances by home athletes tend to obscure the fact that downhill skiing, as an event, is virtually owned by western Europeans, at least in terms of Olympic medals. This is true across all the disciplines but is even more glaring in signature events such as the men’s downhill, where France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy, and Norway have combined to claim 45 of 49 total medals. The notable exceptions: A bronze by Canada’s Steve Podborski at Lake Placid in 1980; American Bill Johnson’s gold at Sarajevo in 1984; American Tommy Moe’s 1994 gold at Lillehammer; and

Canadian Ed Podivinsky’s bronze the same year.

The same Euro-dominance pervades slalom, except for some notable breakout years by North Americans: In 1964 at Innsbruck, Americans Billy Kidd and Jimmy Heuga took the silver and bronze; Phil Mahre finished second behind the legendary Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden at Lake Placid in 1980 and then won, with brother Steve grabbing the silver, at Sarajevo in 1994.

Giant slalom has also been a European affair, with legends such as Stein Eriksen (Oslo, 1952), Jean-Claude Killy (Grenoble, 1968), Ingemar Stenmark (Innsbruck, 1976), and Alberto Tomba (Calgary, 1988, and Albertville, 1992) wearing the gold medal. Bode Miller’s silver in Salt Lake City, 2002, was the first—and so far the only—U.S. medal in the event. Miller, a medal favorite in three races at Turin after becoming the first U.S. male since Phil Mahre to win the World Cup overall title, finished with no medals in 2006.

In the men’s combined, American Miller won silver in Salt Lake City, 2002; teammate Ted Ligety captured gold at Turin in 2006, in a race that defending Olympic champion and World Cup combined leader Kjetil André Aamodt of Norway sat out with a knee injured in the downhill.

Norway’s Lasse Kjus, Aamodt, and Harald Strand Nilson swept the podium for the combined at Lillehammer in 1994—a rare feat for any alpine discipline. Aamodt stands as the most-decorated Olympic skier in history, with eight overall medals: gold in the super-G at Turin; gold in the super-G and combined at Salt Lake City; silver in the combined and downhill, and bronze in the super-G at Lillehammer; gold in the super-G and bronze in the giant slalom at Albertville. After winning his sixth in Salt Lake City, the affable Norwegian was asked which medal means the most. His response: “The next medal is always the nicest one.” Italy’s Tomba, who made history by winning the giant slalom at consecutive Olympics, is the closest male runner-up for medals; he has five.

WOMEN’S RECORD BOOK: ALPINE SKIING

In the 16 times the women’s downhill has been run it has been won 13 times by a skier from Austria, Switzerland, or Germany, the only breakout performance by a North American being Kerrin Lee-Gartner’s gold for Canada at Albertville in 1992—by six-hundredths of a second over America’s Hilary Lindh on a course considered by many to be the longest and most difficult ever raced by women.

In the super-G, Diann Roffe won gold at Lillehammer in 1994, and Picabo Street repeated the feat at Nagano in 1998. Karen Percy of Canada won bronze in Calgary, 1988.

North American women have had considerably more success than the men in slalom, although none of it recently: America’s Gretchen Fraser won the inaugural event at St. Moritz in 1948, becoming the nation’s first alpine skiing gold medalist. She also captured silver in the alpine combined. Andrea Mead-Lawrence kept the crown for America at the 1952 Oslo Games. Subsequent U.S. and Canadian slalom medalists: Canada’s Anne Heggtveit won gold in Squaw Valley, 1960, with a silver to America’s Betsy Snite the same year; America’s Jean Saubert won bronze at Innsbruck, 1964; Canada’s Nancy Greene claimed silver at Grenoble, 1968; and America’s Barbara Cochran took the gold at Sapporo, 1972.

In the giant slalom, America’s Lawrence took the gold at Oslo in 1952; Penny Pitou claimed silver at Squaw Valley in 1960; Jean Saubert won the silver at Innsbruck in 1964; and Canada’s Greene won the gold at Grenoble in 1968, posting a time 2.64 seconds faster than the field for the greatest margin of victory in Olympic history. America’s Debbie Armstrong and Christin Cooper finished first and second at Sarajevo in 1984, America’s Diann Roffe won silver in Albertville, 1992, and Lake Tahoe’s Julia Mancuso won silver at Turin, 2006.

The most-decorated female skier is Janica Kostelić of Croatia who captured six medals, remarkably at only two Olympics. Germany’s Katja Seizinger, a consecutive World Cup downhill title winner (1992–1994) is the only person to win the downhill at consecutive Olympics—Lillehammer in 1994 and Nagano in 1998. Seizinger and slalom specialist Vreni Schneider have collected five Olympic medals apiece.

NEXT STOP: WHISTLER CREEKSIDE

Location: Whistler, B.C.

Spectator capacity: 7,600

Elevation: 610 meters (2,000 feet) at the base; 810 meters (2,657 feet) at the top.

Other events: Paralympic skiing

Medal ceremonies: Whistler Village Celebrations Plaza

The Courses

You can forgive the alpine ski world for reacting with mixed emotions to the news that the 2010 Olympic alpine events would be run on courses at the Whistler Blackcomb resort.

Not that the mountains lacked panache or steepness, or that Whistler Village—consistently rated as the top alpine ski town in North America—might not be up to the task. The mountain had hosted a series of World Cup races, run on courses at Whistler, over the years.

That was part of the problem. Skiing’s World Cup abandoned Whistler after 1995, after the latest in a long string of event washouts. Literally. Whistler’s World Cups fell prey, over and over, to inclement weather, in the form of either rain, warm weather, or one of Whistler’s other persistent challenges—blinding fog.

But those races came early in the World Cup schedule—in November or December, when solid, racing snow is always an iffy proposition at the resort, which sits squarely in a moist coastal, maritime weather pattern due to its low elevation—only about 610 meters (2,000 feet) at the base—and its proximity to salt water.

The Olympics, which come around in mid-February, are at a time in the winter when ample snow is a safe bet. Weather can still be problematic—or perfect, as was the case with a February 2008 World Cup test event. That week, a men’s and women’s race with slaloms, a super-G, and both a men’s and a women’s downhill—went off without a hitch, under sunny skies and mostly firm snow.

The courses for those races were the same as the ones to be used at the Olympics. The men’s downhill course is Whistler’s traditional Dave Murray Downhill, named after the noted Canadian ski racer of the 1970s. The women’s course is an all-new route that basically follows Franz’s Run from a start below Roundhouse Lodge.

Both courses wind up in a new finish area just above Whistler’s Creekside development. Super-G and slalom races will take place on lower slopes of the same routes.

After the test event, skiers had nothing but good things to say about the course.

“It’s going to be sweet,” ski racer Steve Nyman of Utah said of the Olympic downhill and super-G courses. “It’s going to be a rad hill.”

U.S. coach Phil McNichol agreed, saying the courses are steep, fairly technical, and challenging. The women’s course, in fact, is considered one of the steepest in the world—and one of the best.

“Pretty much every single coach in the world loved the downhill,” said U.S. women’s downhill coach Alex Hoedlmoser. “It’s challenging, it’s technical, there’s not too much gliding . . . there’s jumps, there’s terrain, there’s banked turns.”

But everyone’s still a bit on edge about Whistler’s weather reputation, deserved or not.

Race organizers say plenty of wiggle room will be built into the schedule, and they point out—correctly—that weather changes are a fact of life at any Olympics. But Whistler clearly will be the lowest-elevation finish, by a lot, for any Olympic alpine venue. So a little luck may well be in order.

In any case, the ’08 test run was the only one racers will get before the Games. The World Cup won’t return to Whistler before the Olympics, and no races of any kind will be run on the men’s downhill course.

That’s unusual. Because the race is so dangerous, race organizers usually like to give athletes a chance for a trial run on a downhill course before an Olympic Games. Some World Cup skiers suspect that in this case, the Canadian hosts are taking their vaunted Own the Podium medal-accumulation program a bit too far. Even one of Canada’s top prospects, downhiller Eric Guay, didn’t deny it.

“It’s to give us an advantage—for once,” he said, referring to the training edge usually enjoyed by European racers on their home courses.

Other officials, including former Canadian ski racer Steve Podborski, who lives in Whistler and is on the Olympic Organizing Committee, said the lack of preparatory races on the Dave Murray Downhill was just a coincidence.

Either way, the pressure will be on the Canadians to own the hill at Whistler come February 2010.

The Venue

Old-timers might remember Whistler Creekside as a patch of grass that was Whistler’s first lift station as you entered the village on Highway 99. It’s not recognizable as such anymore. Since the old lift at Creekside was replaced by a gondola, a mini-village has sprung up around it, with a bevy of million-dollar ski-out homes dotting the hills above it.

For the Games, this will be alpine central. Creekside, 6.4 kilometers (4 miles) from Whistler Village proper, is a fairly confined, compact area, with not a lot of elbow room. Even more challenging is the fact that the finish line and spectator bleachers are not actually at Creekside, but about a half mile, and a couple hundred vertical feet, up the hill.

Access to that area will be highly restricted—to ticketholders, race officials, and the media, all of whom will be bused there either from Whistler Village or park-and-ride lots elsewhere, such as in the town of Squamish.

Those without tickets but fortunate enough, for whatever reason, to be inside the secured-access zone that is likely to be Whistler (locals “will be able to drive to Whistler Village,” Podborski deadpans, “but they might not be able to stop”) can watch the action unfold from Whistler Village itself, where large TV screens are likely to be installed.

Either way, you’ll always be able to say you were there—just like the other 5.5 million people who won’t be but will lie about it later.

My advice: If you’re fortunate enough to have a race ticket, get there early, and bring your patience and a sack lunch. Seating will be in portable bleachers, which should accommodate about 7,600 race fans. Cowbells are mandatory, not optional.

Alpine Skiing 2010 Schedule

February 13: Men’s downhill

February 14: Women’s super combined

February 16: Men’s super combined

February 17: Women’s downhill

February 19: Men’s super-G

February 20: Women’s super-G

February 21: Men’s giant slalom

February 24: Women’s giant slalom

February 26: Women’s slalom

February 27: Men’s slalom

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