The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea are right around the corner! That means it's time to watch sports you might not have seen in four years. To help you feel at least a little more informed—either to impress your friends or fake your way through a conversation with an actual expert—SI will be providing rookie's guides to each of the 15 sports. These will be published daily, Monday through Friday, from December 4-22.
What is alpine skiing?
In simplest terms, alpine skiing refers to the downhill ski races at the Olympics. Alpine skiing is not one specific event, but an umbrella term that encompasses 11 different competitions.
Both the men and women compete in two "speed events" (the downhill and the super-G), two "technical events" (the slalom and giant slalom), and a combined event. There is also a new team event on the schedule in PyeongChang, in which co-ed teams of four will face off against each other in a single-elimination bracket.
Is it dangerous?
As you might imagine, speeding down a mountain on two-and-a-half inch wide sticks at speeds up to 95 miles per hour is, in fact, dangerous. Skiers are trained in the art of falling, so life-altering injuries have become increasingly rare, but injuries are an unavoidable occupational hazard for elite skiers. The most common are knee injuries, particularly torn ligaments. Human knee joints are not designed to shift as sharply and as quickly as is necessary to get around gates in, say, the Slalom.
The two most famous modern American skiers, Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn, have each dealt with multiple knee injuries throughout their career.
Do skiers participate in multiple events?
It's not uncommon for a skier to compete in multiple different events. It's helpful to think of the four different course styles as a scale, with downhill on the far left in the "speed corner." Moving right is the super-G, which is still a speed event but more toward the middle. Then we cross the axis into the technical side with the giant slalom, and then last, all the way in the right in the technical corner is the slalom. Skiers often compete in two or–more rarely– three events that are adjacent to each other on this hypothetical scale. It's extremely rare for a skier to compete in the downhill and the slalom, because the events are so different in nature, as you'll see shortly.
At this point, it makes most sense to give mini-guide's to each event.
We'll break it down into six sections, which correspond to the six different events. We'll go from fastest (downhill) to slowest (slalom).
Rules: If you've ever skied down a mountain as fast as you can, you've kind of competed in a version of a downhill race! In this competition, there are no barriers that you have to go around and no jumps you have to make. The skier starts atop the course, which is the longest of all the skiing events, and must stay within the lines of the course as he/she speeds down the mountain.
Courses are typically 30 meters (98 feet) wide to allow the athletes some leeway as they fly down the mountain, as speeds up to 150 km/h (roughly 93 miles per hour) are common in this event. The vertical drop for a course typically ranges between 450 to 1,100 meters (1,480 to 3,610 feet) for men and 450 to 800 meters (1,480 to 2,620 feet) for women.
Format: In true make-or-break fashion, athletes get only one attempt at the course. If you fall or wander outside the course's boundaries, your Olympic dreams are over just like that. Gold medal times are typically between 1:30 and 2:30 minutes, and races must take longer than 1:00 to be official. Finishes are often decided by one or two hundredths of a second.
In 2014, there were 50 competitors vying for three medal spots on the men's side, and 42 on the women's side.
History: The first Winter Olympics that featured the downhill competition were the 1948 games in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The men's event is typically dominated by French and Austrian skiers, though Norwegians have made a strong showing in recent years. On the women's side, the countries that generally do best are Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the United States. American Lindsey Vonn won the gold in this event in 2010 but had to miss the 2014 Games due to injury. She will attempt to qualify for PyeongChang.
How fast do they go? Like everything else in alpine skiing, it depends on the course, but virtually every track has a stretch where skiers reach up to 85 miles per hour (usually near the top).
2014 Medal Winners: Men: Gold—Matthias Mayer (Austria), Silver—Christof Innerhofer (Italy), Bronze—Kjetil Jansrud (Norway) Women: Gold—Dominique Gisin (Switzerland)/Tina Maze (Slovenia), Silver—none awarded as Gisin and Maze had statistically equivalent times, Bronze—Lara Gut (Switzerland)
Current World Champion: Men: Beat Feuz (Switzerland) Women: Ilka Stuhec (Slovenia)
Rules: Like in the downhill, courses consist of widely-set gates that allow skiers to maintain high speeds throughout the run. However, the courses do require the skier to make sharper and more frequent turns than in the downhill. The super-G is often run on the same slope as the downhill, though from a lower starting point. The vertical drop for an Olympic super-G course must be between 400–650 meters (1,150–2,130 feet) for men and 400–600 meters (1,150–1,970 feet) for women. By rule, if a skier misses a gate, he/she is allowed to climb back uphill and maneuver through it before heading back down the course. That rarely happens, however, as athletes tend to take a DNF rather than hike back uphill.
Format: Each skier gets one shot at the course, just as in downhill.
In Sochi there were 63 men vying for the three medal spots and 50 on the women's side.
History: Both men's and women's super-G made their debut at the 1988 games in Calgary. Norwegians have won each of the past four golds on the men's side, though American men have fared well at the last two Olympics—Andre Weibrecht won the bronze in 2014, and Bode Miller took silver in 2010 and bronze in 2014 before retiring in 2017. Austria has been the most successful in the super-G on the women's side, and only three American women have ever medaled in the event.
How fast do they go?: Slower than downhill, faster than slalom.
2014 Medal Winners: Men: Gold—Kjetl Jansrud (Norway), Silver—Andrew Weibrecht (United States), Bronze—Jan Hudec (Canada)/Bode Miller (United States) Women: Gold—Anna Fenninger (Austria), Maria Riesch (Germany), Nicole Hosp (Austria)
Rules: In this event, skiers have to go through more gates that are closer together than in the super-G, which results in slower speeds. Thus, it is considered a technical event (alongside the slalom), while super-G joins downhill as the speed events. For the Olympics, the vertical drop for a giant slalom course must be 250–450 meters (820–1,480 feet) for men and 250–400 m (820–1,310 feet) for women. In the men's, there are typically anywhere between 55-70 gates, while the women's event features roughly 46-58 gates.
Format: Like the other technical event, the slalom, the giant slalom takes place over two courses. Each competitor takes a run on the first course, while only those who successfully complete the first run advance to the second run. Skiers who either do not finish or are disqualified do not advance to the second run. Times from both runs are combined, with the fastest time securing the gold. In 2014, 109 men competed during the first run and 79 advanced to the second, while 90 women gave it a go on the first run and 67 advanced to the second run.
History: The women's and men's giant slalom made their Olympic debut in Oslo in 1952. In the men's competition, Austria, Switzerland and France typically fare best. Ted Ligety became the second American man to medal in the event when he won gold in Sochi in 2014. The previous American medalist was Bode Miller, who took silver in Salt Lake City in 2002. A number of different countries have had success on the women's side, including the United States.
How fast do they go?: Roughly 25 miles per hour. It's much slower than the speed events due to the turns.
2014 Medal Winners: Men: Gold—Ted Ligety (United States), Silver—Steve Missillier (France), Bronze—Alexis Pinturault (France) Women: Gold—Tina Maze (Slovenia), Anna Fenninger (Austria), Viktoria Rebensburg (Germany)
Current World Champion: Men: Marcel Hirscher (Austria) Women: Tessa Worley (France)
Rules: The inverse of the downhill event, slalom places a premium on technical skiing rather than just speed. Skiers are required to maneuver through a number of poles and must make a number of sharp turns to do so. Poles used to be made of a stiff material, such as bamboo, which required the skier to go through the gate with his/her entire body, boots and skis. In recent years, flexible poles have been used, which has led to the cross-blocking technique; skiers will use their forearm to knock the gate over as they pass through, allowing them to get their skis as close as possible to the base of the pole.
A course typically features 55 to 75 gates for men and 40 to 60 for women. The total vertical drop for a men's course tends to be around 180 to 220 meters (591 to 722 feet), while women's courses often feature a slightly smaller drop.
Format: The competition takes place over two runs, each coming on a separate course. All competitors participate in the first run, while a select number of competitors (around 40) advance to the second course. The winner is determined by the combined time across the two courses.
In Sochi, 114 men competed in the first run and 77 advanced to the second. On the women's side, 88 women started the competition while 60 advanced to Run 2.
History: Slalom debuted at the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. On the men's side, the countries that typically fare best are Austria, France and the United States. Austria tends to be the most successful country in women's slalom, but an American (Mikaela Shiffrin, then just 18) won gold in Sochi in 2014 and is the current women's world champion. At 22, Shiffrin is one of the favorites heading into PyeongChang.
How fast do they go?: Slower than the giant slalom. This is the slowest event due to the frequency and sharpness of turns.
2014 Medal Winners: Men: Gold—Mario Matt (Austria), Marcel Hirscher (Austria), Henrik Kristoffersen (Norway) Women: Mikaela Shiffrin (United States), Mariles Schild (Austria), Kathrin Zettel (Austria)
Current World Champion: Men: Marcel Hirscher (Switzerland) Women: Mikaela Shiffrin (United States)
Rules: In the super combined, skiers participate in one run of downhill and one run of slalom. In the Olympics, the runs that go toward the alpine combined competition are on different courses from those used in the downhill and slalom competitions. The alpine combined courses are often smaller and less demanding than the downhill and slalom courses.
Format: At the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy, skiers participated in three runs (one downhill, two slalom) on the same day. The times from the downhill run and the two slalom runs were combined, with the fastest time being awarded the gold. In 2010, a switch to the current format was made, under which skiers race once on a downhill course and then once on a slalom course. Only the skiers who successfully complete the downhill portion advance to the slalom. At the end, the times are combined, with the fastest being awarded the gold.
Because the super combined requires the most diverse skill set, it has the smallest fields. In Sochi, only 50 men gave it a go, and only 43 advanced to the slalom portion. Thirty-nine women started the competition and 34 moved on to the slalom.
History: The first combined event debuted in 2006 under the old format of one downhill run and two slalom runs. The current format debuted at the 2010 games in Vancouver. American Bode Miller won the event in 2010. On the women's side, Maria Riesch has won both golds under the new format, while American Julia Mancuso won silver in 2010 and bronze in 2014.
2014 Medal Winners: Men: Sandro Viletta (Switzerland), Ivica Kostelic (Croatia), Christof Innerhofer (Italy) Women: Gold—Maria Riesch (Germany), Silver—Nicole Hosp (Austria), Bronze—Julia Mancusco (United States)
Current World Champion: Men: Luca Aerni (Switzerland) Women: Wendy Holdener (Switzerland)
Parallel Mixed Team
Rules: In this brand new event, teams will consist of four skiers from the same country—two men and two women. Teams will face off in parallel slalom races against each other, meaning there will be two skiers racing each other simultaneously, side-by-side. Times are irrelevant; the skier who crosses the finish line first is declared the winner. If one or both competitors fall, the skier who made it further down is declared the winner.
Format: Sixteen co-ed teams will compete in a single-elimination, bracket-style tournament. Seeding will correspond to the FSI rankings, with the first seed taking on the sixteenth seed in the first round. Each match will consist of four individual races; two women face off, then two men, then the remaining two women, and finally the remaining two men. A victory in each individual race will be worth one point. In the event of a tie on points (if both teams win two races), the team with the lowest combined time of their faster man and woman will be declared the winner.
History: This event will make its debut in PyeongChang, though this team event made its debut at the 2005 World Championships in Italy.
2014 Medal Winners: This event did not take place at the 2014 games in Sochi. At the 2017 World Championships, France took the gold, Slovenia the silver, Sweden the bronze.
Current World Champion: France