The Beijing Winter Olympics start on February 4, 2022. It will be the first city to have hosted a summer and then a winter Olympics. As a skier this has me quite curious on how the alpine events will be accommodated, particularly the downhill discipline. The Beijing (and surrounding area’s) climate and geography is in fact conducive to host a winter Olympics. And the Chinese government is making sure that the infrastructure, logistics, support, and manufactured snow can be arranged, but I’m still left intrigued as the the design and suitability of the downhill race course.
Why the Downhill?…
In alpine ski racing there is a spectrum of disciplines (in ascending order of speed): slalom, giant slalom, super-G, and downhill. Slalom being the most technical/twisty, and downhill at the other end with the least amount of turns (meaning the highest speeds) and generally just follows the contours of the mountain.
- 90+ mph from gravity and waxed/slick skis pointed nearly straight downhill
- Racers descend around 900 vertical meters (2900 feet) in about 2 minutes
- Continuously oscillating squats of -1x (airtime)and 5x body-weight, also alternating leg to leg in the turns
- 60 meter jumps
- Two two-meter long, double-sided, razor sharp blades (skis) are bolted to the athletes’ feet
- Protection: skin tight suit for aerodynamics (i.e. not protection), a helmet, and lots of faith in the run-off areas and safety netting
- (An example when safety netting was proven inadequate)
I posit that there is no greater test of a human’s courage, planning, nerves, execution, stamina, and power. And with life-threatening consequences for even small mistakes any given course had better be world-class, tested, and accommodating with the latest in safety considerations and features.
The Downhill Establishment
There are downhill venues which are both historic and regular stops on the World Cup calendar: they have an indefinite hold on their respective winter weekends when the world’s elite racers arrive and are delighted to race on courses they grew up dreaming about. Some examples:
- Kitzbuhel, Austria’s famous Streif course (since 1937)
- Wengen, Switzerland’s Lauberhorn downhill (since the 1930’s)
- Beaver Creek’s (Colorado) Birds of Prey downhill (since 1997, relatively new but now regular)
- (Here’s a beautiful histogram on Wikipedia of Men’s downhill races. Sadly I could not find an analogous page for Women’s races.)
These courses are time tested and continually tweaked for safety and technology improvements. The Olympics run counter to this regularity, and most of the time necessitating a new venue to be purpose built for the particular winter Olympics. Question: can a world class downhill be built safely for a one-off use?
Design, Build, Test…
It’s the classic project delivery cycle. And absolutely a necessity if the world’s best (i.e. fastest) ski racers will be flying 90 miles per hour down a brand new Olympic race course. It had better be fully vetted and adequately tested…
The Salt Lake City (USA) 2002 Olympics were similar circumstances to Beijing 2022. Snowbasin (Utah) was identified for the downhill and super-G courses. New trails were cut and a new ski lift was installed to bring personnel to the top of the course. A national level (NorAm) competition was held, then a World Cup event hosted but only two days of training runs were completed before the rest of that World Cup race had to be cancelled. With only training runs it still meant that world class skiers were racing the course and looking for speed in any angle, approach, nook, and cranny. (And that included the legendary Herman Maier, who was the skier hurtling through the safety netting in a linked video earlier in this post!) That’s the crux. If a World Cup racer can find 0.4 more mph in a particular turn (e.g. 89.7 vs. 90.1mph) than national level competitors, how much more dangerous are the turns and jumps given that speed delta? Has the course been engineered correctly for the elite level?
Are the run-off areas wide enough? Is the safety netting tall enough? Is the geometry of the landing areas at risk of not being long enough?
Is a downhill course fully vetted and adequately tested if it has only hosted national level competition?
Yanqing Alpine Ski Center
Located approximately 50 miles north of the city of Beijing, the Beijing 2022 organization has thoroughly showcased their focus and accomplishments on the supporting infrastructure (e.g. transportation) and logistics enhancement of their new world class venue.
The region and mountains selected for the downhill and super-G courses actually do not receive enough natural snowfall. While counterintuitively this can be good (because ski racers and organizers appreciate icey/rockhard courses which don’t change during the course of a race day), it can simply feel wrong and counter to the spirit of the winter Olympic games. Ultimately this was a decision by the International Olympic Committee and Beijing’s proposal, that a successful games could still be hosted given the lack of natural snow. At elite levels of competition it’s common to rely on artificial snow. Such as in my home state of Vermont which hosts early season women’s races at Killington who are always eager to announce when ‘positive snow control’ is achieved. But Vermont is a place associated with large quantities of snow. Yanqing doesn’t receive much, and officials needed to start making snow on November 15 ahead of the February competition.
Bernhard Russi (an Olympic downhill course designer) lauded the Yanqing mountain (and the possibility of the ultimate course) back in 2019. A member of the design team for Yanqing’s downhill is Tom Johnson (US Team alpine technical advisor), who acknowledged the limitations on access and testing.
Formal testing? The Chinese Winter Games (national level) hosted a downhill on the course in January 2020 (similar to the pattern of testing for Salt Lake City 2002). But COVID and the pandemic precluded the arrival and racing by world class athletes for subsequent events.
- A Men’s downhill and super-G were cancelled, originally scheduled for February 15, 2020.
- A Women’s downhill and super-G were also cancelled, originally scheduled for February 27, 2021.
Nestled somewhere in the summits and topography of the new Yanqing Alpine Ski Center is a high speed downhill course. The Men’s downhill is scheduled for February 6, 2022 and the Women’s for February 15, 2022. At the very least I hope to have imparted an appreciation for the risk, racing peril, and logistics involved in the downhill event. If you find yourself cheering on your respective compatriots during the downhill or super-G, please pause to consider that these are amazing athletes, made up of the right stuff, risking life and pushing the limit in extraordinary ways.