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Speed Thrills: The Olympic Downhill Course


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The best Olympic downhill course ever? Maybe. Poll the downhill medal contenders, and they’ll likely tell you that, in recent years, only the 1994 course in Kvitfjell, Norway, belongs in the same league as the one at Snowbasin.

The Olympic downhills at Lake Placid (1980), Sarajevo (1984), Calgary (1988), and even Nagano (1998), were widely dissed as being flat and easy “glider’s” courses. (Indeed, unlike Kvitfjell, none of them continues to be used for World Cup competition.) Of course, gliding — riding a flat ski smoothly — is itself a respectable skill. Bill Johnson, who was one of the best gliders in the business, used it to his great advantage in winning gold in Sarajevo. A gliding specialist, however, would probably get his ass handed to him at Snowbasin. This is a turny, “technical” course: Racers will almost always be, literally, on edge.

The Olympic downhill (named Grizzly for the men and Wildflower for the women) will thus not be a “wax race,” in which a clever, prerace wax job can supersede on-course skiing skills. That’s because the bases of the skis will rarely be in full contact with the snow. In fact, ski technicians may focus less on base prep than on fine-tuning edges to meet the precision-turning demands of the course.

Steep From the Start (a)
Right from the gun, racers will nose-dive down Ephraim’s Face. At a 70 percent gradient, it’s the steepest pitch on the course. Within six seconds, racers should reach speeds exceeding 80 miles an hour. The women’s downhill, though slightly shorter (2,625 vertical feet vs. the men’s 2,897), covers much of the same terrain, including the same finish. The big difference: The women will start just below Ephraim’s Face.

The Terrible Traverse (b)
The steepness of the opening pitch worries competitors less than the next section of the course — the seemingly benign, left-leaning John Paul Traverse. Here, racers will spend several seconds riding their edges, trying to find the fine line between maintaining firm edge grip on the sidehill and digging in too aggressively. During training for last year’s canceled World Cup races, U.S. medal favorite Daron Rahlves, fourth after the first interval time check, was a woeful 52nd after the next. In roughly 12 seconds, he lost .84 seconds to training-run winner Stephan Eberharter. At 65 miles an hour, .84 seconds computes to about 80 feet.

Flying Over Flintlock (c)
During last year’s World Cup training at Snowbasin, competitors launched up to 150 feet off Flintlock, the biggest jump on the course. Coming at the end of the John Paul Traverse, it’s a blind entry into Bear Trap, a kind of giant washbasin. The key will be to minimize air time, because immediately after landing, racers have to make a big, sweeping left turn, followed by a big right one. Fly too far off Flintlock, and they’ll be too late to set up cleanly for the turns.

Slip-Sliding Through Slingshot (d)Daron Rahlves compared the final few seconds of the course at Snowbasin to the gnarly finish at Kitzbühel, where racers must negotiate a fast, brutally bumpy sidehill before entering the final schuss. Before the final pitch at Snowbasin, racers will have to be precise through Slingshot — a steep combination of two sidehill turns — before hitting Buffalo Jump and the rush to the finish. Enter the first left-hand turn too fast or too late, and they’ll be scrambling, almost skiing uphill, to get back on line for the next gate.

Buffalo Jump (e)

Finish (f)

And Now, From Outer Space…
The precise location of all 35 gates on the men’s downhill course (and 37 on the women’s course) has been determined through the satellite-based Global Positioning System. If officials have to remove gates for any reason, they’ll be repositioned in exactly the same spot.

Wet and Wild
The water content of “the greatest snow on earth” is generally less than 20 percent and often less than 10 percent. And that, as far as downhill racing goes, is something close to the worst snow on earth. Course officials would prefer a water content between 65 and 70 percent. One way they approach that is by spraying water on the course with fire hoses, eventually making it rock hard They’ll also implement a newer technology known as snow injection, which forces water deep into the snow and can assure a consistently firm composition well below the surface — particularly helpful in preventing the formation of dangerous ruts.