For most, ski racing may seem pretty simple. A starting gate, course, and finish line reward the skier with the fastest time with a spot on top of the podium. However, there are many additional elements, rules, and standards amid the simplicity of the sport which can create confusion. We’re going to break it all down for you here.
There are six disciplines in ski racing, which are overseen by a governing body called the FIS (Federation Internationale de Ski). Downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom, alpine combined, and the recently created but nonetheless exciting parallel and team event make up the six events. The type of skis, number of runs, length of course, distances between gates, and speeds vary among the six.
Downhill: The fastest and most thrilling of the events, downhill is one of the two “speed events” and is one of the original disciplines of alpine ski racing. downhill tends to appeal to the skiers with the most guts and greatest desire to take risks. Some of the winningest American Downhillers are Daron Rahlves, Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn. Here are downhill’s defining elements:
- Longest and fastest of the five events
- Fewest turns
- Often has terrain where racers catch air
- Courses set by FIS officials, generally similar courses on each venue year to year
- Racers take an inspection and one race run and must start at least one training run on the race course beforehand
- Only event where racers can ski the course before a race run
- Course times are usually between a minute and a half to two minutes
- Speeds can be upwards of 100mph
- Largest distance between gates of any discipline, usually 45-50 meters
Super-G: The second “speed event,” super-G basically has all the same elements of downhill turned down a notch with more technical course sets. The speeds are a little bit sower, courses a little bit shorter, and gates a little bit closer together, forcing greater technical skiing from the competitors.
- Second longest and second fastest of the five events
- Can have terrain where racers catch air
- Courses set by coaches and sets change day-to-day on each venue
- Racers take an inspection and one race run
- Course times are usually around a minute and a half
- Speeds can be up to 60-75 mph
- Second largest distance between gates, usually 40-45 meters
Giant Slalom: one of the “technical events,” giant slalom (also known as simply GS) combines a relatively high speed with a greater number of turns per course than that of the speed events. Top American giant slalom skiers have been Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin, Bode Miller, Tamara McKinney, and Phil Mahre.
- Second greatest number of turns per course, third fastest event
- Courses often have terrain, but racers tend to not catch air
- Courses set by coaches, courses change run-to-run and day-t0-day on every venue
- Racers take two runs, fastest combine time wins. No recorded training runs
- After the first run, racers are ranked fastest to slowest
- For the second run, the thirty fastest racers “flip” their order. Ex: the 30th fastest racer on run 1 will run 1st for run 2. The fastest racer from run 1 will run 30th
- Course time are usually a minute to a minute and a half
- Speeds can be 35-50 mph
- Distances between gates is usually 23-30 meters
Slalom: The most technical of the events, slalom has the greatest number of turns and the slowest relative speed. Slalom also features a different skiing style than the other events. Slalom races have a single pole instead of the traditional double pole and panel setup. The single pole encourages athletes to “clear” the gates with their shins (with shin and pole guards). This is necessary due to the close proximity of the gates as athletes can then take the tightest line possible between turns.
- Greatest number of turns per course
- Courses set by coaches, also changing run-to-run and day-to-day
- Racers take two runs, fastest combined time wins. No training runs allowed
- Like GS, the top 30 times from the first run run in reverse order for the second run
- Course times are usually less than a minute
- Speeds range from 20-30 mph
- Distance between gates is usually 8-15 meters
Alpine Combined: a less conventional event, the alpine combined truly is a combination with one run of downhill and one run of slalom combined for the fastest total time. It works in a similar fashion to the technical events as the top thirty fastest skiers from the run of downhill are “flipped” and run in reverse order for the slalom run. Depending on weather conditions, sometimes the slalom portion is run first.
Parallel or Dual Racing: Parallel racing has creates an opportunity for athletes to compete head-to-head. Athletes compete in a bracket format, typically with 32 competitors (sixteen pairs) with the slower skier eliminated after each round.
- Two courses are set parallel to one another, a red course and a blue course
- In the initial round, athletes are allowed an opportunity on each course, and the racer with the fastest combine time moves on
- From that round on, it is single run elimination
- There can be two or three built in jumps in the course
- The course is usually 25-30 seconds long
- Can be run on either slalom or GS equipment depending on the event
Team Event: the team event was also recently added to the circuit and operates nearly identically to normal parallel racing. However, it is mixed gender. Team event most commonly features teams of four, two women and two men per team, who compete in a bracket format.
- Racers from each team compete head-to-head in the bracket and receive a point per win.
- Ties are broken by the team with the fastest individual men’s and women’s time
- Teams are then eliminated after every heat until there is a first, second, and third ranked team