Follow in the footsteps of skiing giants on the greatest Olympic downhill ski runs. Can you handle it?
Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be an Olympic downhill racer? Challenging yourself, chasing time, aiming to have the best race of your life, while the whole world is watching you? There are a couple of places where you can experience, well, almost exactly that in Canada, the U.S. and the Alps.
Here are our top-five Olympic downhill ski runs for you to try yourself:
1. Grizzly Downhill, Salt Lake City 2002
The men’s downhill course of Salt Lake City 2002 is unparalleled in several ways. Designed by former Swiss ski racer and renowned slope designer Bernhard Russi, the ‘Grizzly Downhill’ at Snowbasin Ski Area started at the highest altitude of all Olympic downhill races, at 2,831 metres. With a vertical drop of 883 metres over a length of just 2,860 metres and exceeding the gradients of Kitzbühel or Wengen, it was amongst the shortest, quickest descending and fastest Olympic downhills ever.
The top five finishers completed the course in less than 100 seconds. Fritz Strobl of Austria came in first, Lasse Kjus of Norway second, and Stephan Eberharter of Austria third. Hermann Maier who was the world’s best downhiller at that time wasn’t able to start that winter due to a horrific motorcycle accident he had the year before. British racers didn’t compete in the Olympic downhill in Snowbasin.
The Snowbasin resort is one of the oldest in the United States, opened in 1939, but received many updates prior to the Olympic winter games. To get to the 2002 downhill course, you have to take the John Paul Express Quad from the base station, then the Allen Peak Tram right up to Allen Peak. The ‘Grizzly Downhill’, marked as a black diamond trail for advanced skiers, takes you right back to the base station, as does the equally challenging, though a little less steep, women’s ‘Wildflower Downhill’, designed by Bernhard Russi as well.
2. Franz’s Downhill, Vancouver 2010
The women’s Olympic downhill run of Vancouver 2010 was one of the most controversial ever. Almost all training runs on the course at Whistler Mountain were cancelled due to bad weather – all but one, which was held in two parts before and after the men’s race.
The result was several accidents during the race. Probably the most spectacular crash involved Anja Pärson. The Swedish skier had the silver medal within her grasp when she lost balance on the last jump before the finish line, flew 60 metres and crashed to the piste. Pärson did not suffer any major injuries and succeeded in winning bronze in the super combined the next day.
Called ‘Franz’s Downhill’, the course started on Whistler Mountain’s Wildcard slope, cut across Jimmy’s Joker, joined the Lower Franz’s slope before merging with the men’s downhill course, the ‘Dave Murray’. Some criticised the fast and selective piste as too difficult, while several athletes described it as a truly Olympic challenge.
Americans Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso came in first and second, Elisabeth Görgl of Austria won bronze. The best British competitor was Chemmy Alcott who finished 13th. Four years earlier, Alcott had produced the best performance by a British female skier in the Olympics since Felicity Field in 1968 when she came in 11th in Turin.
As a regular skier, you can take a look at ‘Franz’s Downhill’ at Whistler Blackcomb ski resort. Like those of the men’s “Dave Murray” downhill, the slopes constituting “Franz’s” are marked as black diamond trails for advanced skiers. Apart from a real challenge, Whistler also rewards you with a breath-taking view and – last but not least – the biggest ski resort in North America.
3. Olympiabakken, Lillehammer 1994
The Olympic downhill course at Kvitfjell ski resort in Norway sticks out in a couple of ways. Kvitfjell (which is Norwegian for “white mountain”) is located 50 kilometres north of Lillehammer, on the verge of the Jotunheimen Mountains. The course at the 1994 winter Olympics started at the lowest altitude above sea level of all Olympic Alpine skiing competitions, except for the runs of Oslo 1952, at Norefjell, which were situated even lower.
Both men and women raced on the Olympiabakken course at Kvitfjell – the men starting at 1030 metres, the women at 890 metres. The women’s downhill had originally been scheduled for nearby Hafjell, where the technical events were held. But the female athletes successfully protested against the too flat and easy course.
The men’s race turned out to be one of the closest ever: less than one second separated the first 15 finishers, and there were only four hundredths between gold medalist Tommy Moe (USA) and silver medalist Kjetil André Aamodt (Norway). British brothers Graham and Martin Bell came in 26th and 28th.
Today, Kvitfjell is a rather small resort with five beginner slopes, 11 blue, six red, and three black slopes. The upper and lower Olympiabakken slopes are the most difficult ones, with some rather steep passages, leading from the very top on the mountain to the base station. Their outline was designed by Bernhard Russi as well. Russi once claimed that the Kvitfjell course was his favourite of all times: slow curves, jumps, quite a lot of movement in the straight parts – features that influenced significantly the way downhill runs are designed.
4. Patscherkofel and Hoadl, Innsbruck 1964 and 1976
Innsbruck in Austria is the only city besides Switzerland’s St. Moritz that hosted the Olympic winter games twice: in 1964 and in 1976. Both times, the male downhill racers competed at Patscherkofel Mountain while the women raced down a mountain that goes by the equally beautiful Austrian name of Hoadl in the Axamer Lizum ski area.
The 1964 competitions were threatened by a lack of snow and could only be held because the Austrian army rushed to the rescue, carrying 40,000 cubic metres of snow to the slopes. The downhill gold medals stayed in Austria that year, going to Egon Zimmerman and Christl Haas. The best British downhill skier was Gina Hathorn who came in 16th. The competitions were overshadowed by a tragedy that occurred three days before the first race: 17-year-old Australian racer Ross Milne was killed when he crashed into a tree on a practice run.
The 1976 races are mainly remembered for Austrian Franz Klammer’s gold medal winning run. With what some described as a complete lack of style and on the verge of falling several times, Klammer pulled ahead over the last few metres and won gold at Patscherkofel. In the women’s race at Hoadl, Rosi Mittermaier came in first. British racers failed to reach the top 20 that year.
Since then, both Patscherkofel and Axamer Lizum resorts have had several makeovers. Manuel Lampe of Innsbruck Tourismus says lack of snow is not an issue any more: “Now both runs are completely equipped with state-of-the-art snow cannons and lifts.” Both of them are quite easy to manage for skiers: The “Olympiaabfahrt” at Patscherkofel is labelled red, while the one at Hoadl with its blue label is doable even for beginners. “Both are usually nice and sunny,” says Lampe. “But before races they are turned into icy chutes. I personally would never go down them then.”
Both resorts can be reached by ski bus from the centre of Innsbruck. You can even take the city tram to get to Patscherkofel. So if you’d like to combine your downhill adventure with a nice city trip, Patscherkofel and Axamer Lizum are the places for you to go.
5. Recoin de Chamrousse, Grenoble 1968
February 10th, 1968 is a significant date in the history of British Alpine skiing. On that day, at Le Recoin de Chamrousse close to Grenoble, British downhill racer Felicity Field, nicknamed “Bunny”, came in sixth – the best Olympic result ever by a British downhill racer.
“The race was short and very straightforward,” Field told OnTheSnow. She has been a Swiss ski instructor since 1972, teaching at Kleine Scheidegg in the Swiss Jungfrau Region since 1984. Grenoble 1968 was the only Olympic Games she competed in, but in 1966 and 1970 she took part in the world championships in Portillo, Chile and Val Gardena, Italy.
“Le Recoin de Chamrousse was far less technical than a lot of other downhills such as Bad Gastein, Val d’Isère, or today’s courses on carving skis,” says Field. Her favourite downhill is the Lauberhorn men’s downhill race course at Wengen in the Jungfrau Region, “unfortunately not an Olympic one yet”, she adds. Field thinks the Lauberhorn is as close as you will get to being on an actual race course, getting your time in 100 kilometres per hour.
On that sunny February 10th in 1968, gold went to Austria’s Olga Pall. Felicity Field’s teammates Gina Hathorn, Helen Jamieson and Davina Galica, who as Field recalls, “Was our top women’s downhill racer at the time, but noticeably had the wrong wax on her skis”, finished 15th, 26th and 32nd.
The male downhill race at nearby Casserousse was dominated by Frenchmen Jean-Claude Killy and Guy Périllat. Local hero, Killy, seen as the favourite by many, won by eight-hundredths of a second and also dominated the giant slalom and the slalom.
Today Le Recoin is a ski resort appreciated especially by more advanced skiers. A cable car takes you from the small town centre right on top of La Croix de Chamrousse at 2,350 metres. From there you can either take the red-labelled ‘Olympique Dames’ piste back to Chamrousse or the black ‘Olympique Hommes’ to Casserousse. Both are challenging, and there’s no blue-run shortcut if you get tired on your 600-metre descent.
Former racer Felicity Field told us that to her, today’s courses seem like “very technical high-speed, super-fast giant slaloms” compared to those her generation raced on. You can judge for yourself by skiing all of them!