Also known as "Ski Racing.'' Five races for men. Five races for women. Some long and fast (downhill and super-G), some shorter and more technical (slalom and giant slalom). Once the Games begin, it's all skiing, all the time. The men's downhill pushes off on the morning after the Opening Ceremony and the men's slalom goes on the afternoon, one day before the flame is extinguished.
Mountains. Snow. Speed. Nothing says winter sports like a helmeted racer tearing down the side of a mountain, craggy peaks in the distance, cowbells clanging at the bottom. Of all the Winter Olympics sports, Alpine ski racing is the Winter Olympic-est. Ski racing in Vancouver will actually take place at the Whistler Blackcomb Resort, 70 miles (about two hours by car) north of the city, in one of the most spectacular Alpine settings in the world.
And there's this: For some reason, snowboarding has taken on the role as the Winter Olympics' edgy sport, while Alpine racing is regarded as the senior tour. Think again. Men's Alpine downhillers reach top speeds of more than 90 miles per hour while wearing nothing but a speed suit, helmet and flak jacket. They are balanced on 7-foot-long planks with razor-sharp edges for turning on a surface that's not really snow at all, but rather a form of pond ice created by injecting water in to the hillside.
Greatest moments in Olympic history? Jean-Claude Killy (still, and always, the best ski name ever) sweeping the three medals at Grenoble in 1968 and Hermann Maier soaring off the side of a mountain in Nagano, Japan, 30 years later and then coming back to win two gold medals.
Lindsey Vonn, USA: She was going to be the biggest story of the Games before suffering a severely bruised shin 10 days before the Opening Ceremony. Now she's a combination of Willis Reed and Picabo Street, trying to climb off the training table and into history. Vonn is arguably the most dominant U.S. skier in history and will race all five disciplines and has a very real chance to medal in at least three. Twice the World Cup overall champion, Vonn's drama now promises to make her a television star across America.
Bode Miller, USA: Remembered best for his '06 Olympic flameout, but remains a snow savant who "un-retired'' in September and has steadily improved throughout the World Cup season. A threat to win or crash in all five races.
Carlo Janka, Switzerland: Janka, 22, leaped to the top of the World Cup ladder when he won all three races (super combined, downhill and giant slalom) at Beaver Creek, Colo., in December. He followed that up in his home country by winning the legendary Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen on Jan. 16.
Didier Cuche, Switzerland: At the other end of the Swiss timeline is the 36-year-old Cuche, who is built like a beer keg and stokes World Cup crowds in the finish corral when he snaps his first ski off and flips it into the air before snatching it with a gloved hand. He also has finished third in the World Cup overall standings three consecutive years and won the Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzb�hel, Austria, on Jan. 22.
Benjamin Raich, Austria: One of the most accomplished technical (slalom and giant slalom) skiers in history, Raich has 35 career World Cup wins, more than any other racer at the Games.
Ted Ligety, USA: Ligety was just 21 years old when he shocked the ski racing world with a gold medal in the combined (downhill-slalom) at the '06 Olympics. He has since won a year-long giant slalom title ('08) and four World Cup races. He's a threat in three races (combined, giant slalom and slalom).
Julia Mancuso, USA: The other U.S. gold medalist from '06 (in giant slalom), Mancuso has struggled with injuries since then, but has always delivered her best performances on the biggest stages.
Maria Riesch, Germany: Frazier to Vonn's Ali, the 5-foot-11 Riesch has 12 World Cup wins from '04-10, three season titles and the '09 world title in slalom.
The Games are Vonn's stage, even more so with the disclosure of her injury. She has owned the 2010 World Cup season in downhill (four victories) and super-G (two wins), while raising her career total to 29 victories, second only to Miller's 32. She won the '09 world titles in both downhill and super-G. Vonn is telegenic, earnest and immensely talented, precisely the type of athlete who wins Olympic gold medals and lands on Wheaties boxes. She is to these Games what Michael Phelps was to the '08 Summer Olympics in Beijing. On top of all that, Vonn was ready to win medals in '06, but crashed in downhill training and won nothing at all. Back then she climbed out of a hospital bed just to race. This time she expects more.
Bode Miller vs. Conventional Wisdom. Miller takes a very personal view of competition. He says success or failure is determined by his rules, not the scoreboard. Most fans and viewers would argue otherwise and many resent Miller for not only failing to win in '06, but flaunting his late-night partying. Miller is inarguably one of the most talented racers of all-time and comes to Whistler as a 32-year-old man with a young daughter and one last chance to add to the two silver medals he won eight years ago in Salt Lake, when he was far less jaded.
The weather often stinks in Whistler. Whistler is beautiful, but the base altitude is only 2,140 feet, making it one of the lowest major ski resorts in the world. That, combined with Whistler's proximity to the Pacific Ocean, leaves it susceptible to sketchy weather conditions, including rain, fog and epic snowstorms. Most ski-racing insiders will be surprised if the Alpine race schedule comes off without any postponements, and with the predictions of rain, fog and snow through the first weekend of the Games, some disruption in the schedule seems almost certain.
Men's downhill: Feb. 13Women's super combined: Feb. 14Men's super combined: Feb. 16Women's downhill: Feb. 17Men's super-G: Feb. 19Women's super-G: Feb. 20Men's giant slalom: Feb. 21Women's giant slalom: Feb. 24Women's slalom: Feb. 26Men's slalom: Feb. 27