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Ski Resort Life

Vancouver 2010: Alpine Speed Events

It’s only when things go wrong that you get a sense of how absurdly dangerous alpine racing’s speed events are.

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Downhill Viewed in the two dimensions of television, downhill looks deceptively tame. No camera angle really captures the rate at which these speed freaks travel, the steepness of the terrain, the forces they withstand or the heights at which they soar when speed and terrain conspire to spit them into the void. Should a skier make one tiny error of line or balance, one momentary loss of vision
or tactical miscue and, in an instant, Olympic dreams crash and burn.

Nothing brings home the risks of downhill more viscerally than the sight of a human form cartwheeling down an icy pitch. Remember Hermann Maier’s spectacular exit—upside down and 10 feet off the deck—from the Nagano course in 1998? Somehow he shook it off to win two golds later in the week.

But all too often, the consequences are dire, as they were for Regine Cavagnoud, pride of France, killed by a brain injury after colliding with a coach who wandered into her training course at Pitztal, Austria, in 2001. Or Ulrike Maier, a young Austrian mother planning to retire at the end of the season, dead of a broken neck sustained in a 1994 World Cup downhill crash at Garmisch, Germany.  And who can forget American Scott Macartney convulsing on the snow in the finish at Kitzbühel with brain trauma that would take months to heal.

Super G Lest you assume that the slightly slower speeds and shorter courses of the super G lower its danger quotient, consider Austrian Matthias Lanzinger, learning to walk with one leg after the other was nearly torn off in a World Cup super G in 2008. Super G is not a toned-down version of downhill but an equally spectacular contest with hazards all its own. For example, the rules mandate at least 30 direction changes (that’s about one every 2.5 seconds), and racers don’t get even a single practice run, let alone three, as in downhill.

The Courses At Whistler, course designers have plenty of pitch and vertical drop to work with. Both courses are long and challenging. Athletes will be traveling in excess of 60 mph in super G, 80 mph in downhill. And with Olympic gold medals up for grabs, they’ll hold nothing back. May their angels be swift enough to keep up.

Who To Watch: Lindsey Vonn, USA; Bode Miller, USA; Carlo Janka, SUI; Michael Walchhofer and the Austrian team

                     America’s best hopes: Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn, Marco Sullivan

Who’s your pick to win?

View the trailer for Truth in Motion, a film about the U.S. Ski Team’s Journey to the Olympics.

The Schedule

Feb. 13: Men’s downhill

Feb. 17: Women’s downhill

Feb. 19: Men’s super G

Feb. 20: Women’s super G