The clip above comes via a wonderful Nick Paumgarten post at The New Yorker. As Paumgarten notes, it’s rare that film or TV captures the horrifying speeds — 70 to 90 mph at the Olympic level — at which downhill skiers actually race. Seventy to ninety, going down ridiculous slopes, with nothing controlling your speed and direction but some sticks clipped to awkward boots. The noise alone is terrifying.
The clip above, which ends with a fantastic, tense, wild, absolutely-at-the-edge run by Franz Klammer, described in real time with fine, live, wonderfully excited commentary from announcers Bob Beattie and Frank Gifford, gets close. Klammer is skiing at the extreme outside margin here — “falling as much as skiing,” as one person put it — and just barely mastering the chaos, narrowly avoiding disaster again and again. A few months later he told journalist Patrick Lang, “When I started, the course was basically ruined and I knew I had only a small chance to win. So I decided to take even more risks than I had planned.” He just barely managed those risks, which is the essence of a winning downhill. The run shows why he remains widely recognized as the greatest downhiller ever.
Paumgarten’s post, meanwhile, is a splendid teaser and primer for the alpine events at Sochi. It has been the only thing to cut through my disgust with the way the Olympics are run, and my disgust with Putin, to pique my interest in the actual events:
I’ll never understand why downhill skiing doesn’t have a greater TV presence in the United States. It’s fast, dangerous, picturesque, suspenseful, and pure. The suits are awesome. No sport has more cowbell. For those who believe, as the broadcasters often seem to, that Americans are the only athletes worth following, it happens that in recent years some of the most compelling and successful racers on the World Cup circuit have been from the United States: Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Mikaela Shiffrin, Ted Ligety, and Bode Miller. There’s beauty, grit, loose screws. You’d think NBC would want to prime viewers’ interest in the months leading up to the Olympic Games, but, save for some week-old races aired deep in the ghettos of cable, Alpine skiing is little more than a quadrennial curiosity. So now, quick: care!
Paumgarten’s always sharp, and I’m not sure anyone writes better about downhill skiing these days. You may feel inspired to ski — or to at least work out on your Russian Trampoline. It’s Yanks on Planks: The Skiers to Watch in Sochi : The New Yorker
[A bit later:] I could not resist adding
two three more vids. The first one below is Jim Ligety, a favorite in the giant slalom at Sochi, practicing on the course there last year. It’s just one run, shown first as shot from a helmet cam on a skier behind Ligety, then shown again through Ligety’s helmet cam. This hints at the speed involved — and Ligety’s going probably 50, whereas the downhillers will hit 90. You can see here why Ligety’s favored: Beautifully fluid through this turns. This makes better watching if you look at the course ahead as Ligety probably does: less at the gate rushing up at you than at the next one ahead.
Below is a feature-length film about downhilling, “The Thin Line,” that includes a lot of superb footage as well as some good interviews of downhillers (and one surgeon). Watch the whole thing or just skip around. As one skier in the film puts it, a great run is one in which the skier is “100 percent in control of being 100 percent out of control.” When they slip a percent, out-of-control takes control; there are some spectacular crashes here (see the 3 minutes starting at 44:30) and quite a few stunning saves. It includes, appropriately, quite a bit of gush about Klammer’s infamous run shown in the video at top. As always, the runs with the best-recorded and presented sound — the sound of the skis trying to grab the snow just enough to keep the skier on track — are the best.
And what does Ted Ligety do when he’s not doing the gates? He does the trees. Some lovely skiing here. I like the parts where he has to stop and look around and think “Where now?” Good to see the greats have those moments. Wish I could ski out of them the way he does.
Hemingway had it right, all those years ago, in Cross Country Snow.
‘There’s nothing really can touch skiing, is there ?’ Nick said. ‘The way it feels when you first drop off on a long run.’
Nothing can touch it.
PPS: At WIRED, Jeffrey Marlow has a fine science-y post about how American downhiller has gone from middle-of-the-pack to contender by wringing the most out of wind tunnels, suit design, blood workups, etc:
Nyman hits Val Gardena’s most famous obstacle — the notorious Camel Humps—and launches into the air at 80 mph. He’s soaring, and this is a good thing. The trick is to clear a series of three jumps all at once and avoid one of the most dangerous parts of the course. He strains to keep his skis aloft just a little longer. It’s working—he clears 150, 200, 250 feet. He catches a glimpse below as he passes over the landing tracks of previous racers. “All right, it’s on,” he thinks. “I’m flying!”
Get the rest of that at How Science Turned a Struggling Pro Skier Into an Olympic Medal Contender