SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
February 11, 1980
From their start atop Whiteface Mountain, the Olympic downhill courses can be sunny and stunning or stormy and surly. Whichever, the runs at Lake Placid will demand the most in skill and courage
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February 11, 1980

The Downhill: Majesty And Madness

From their start atop Whiteface Mountain, the Olympic downhill courses can be sunny and stunning or stormy and surly. Whichever, the runs at Lake Placid will demand the most in skill and courage

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This is the centerpiece of the Winter Olympics, the most electrifying, dangerous and in many ways the most beautiful event of them all. More than any other Olympic sport, the downhill pits racer against nature in a calculated gamble with sudden disaster. It matches a mere mortal—frail and breakable and brave as hell—against God's most overwhelming terrain, a steep and rugged mountain in winter.

There goes the racer, tiny as a flea against the mountain, rocketing down the course at more than 60 mph, sometimes close to 90. Down the skier hurtles, across two miles or more of shattering bumps and curves. The course snakes through skull-breaking rocks and trees, down drops as precipitous as the side of Boulder Dam—and the racer's only meaningful armor is the crash helmet that makes him look faceless and oddly sinister. The rest of his body is vulnerable. Surely, at these velocities a sense of fear rides along.

No way. Indeed, something quite mystical and soothing seems to take over during a downhill run. Jean Vuarnet of France, who won the gold medal in the downhill at Squaw Valley in 1960, wrote of the way it was when he burst out of the starting gate: "I am now in another world—alone with trees and mountains. I've left fear behind me to find solitude. Crowds flit by, yet I am not concerned with them. I must think fast.... Watch it.... Now there's a slight shade, now total darkness. I can't see a thing.... Hang on. Stay low.... Now a schuss toward the left and a last bump at 65 mph. The course has disappeared under my ski tips.... The crowd cries out at the finish: I see trees, flags. I am back in the world again."

Otherworldly? Ah, yes. The perceptions are quite unexpected. One would imagine that the shriek of speed would dominate everything, immerse the racer in pandemonium, keep him on the razor's edge of barely restrained panic. But, no. Andy Mill, 27, a world-class U.S. racer for seven years, speaks of the downhill as a kind of lovely karma: "I watch from inside my helmet and the outside world is nothing but a blur. And it is quiet. It's not that I can't hear anything at all from inside my helmet. There's a sense of sound, but mainly just an idea of sound and it's coming from inside my head. I guess it's the sound of my mind rushing. And I have a kind of tunnel vision from inside my helmet. At the end of the tunnel I see a red gate where I'll make my next turn. Peripheral vision is almost completely gone—just blurs along the edges, and I assume they are probably people or trees. When I leave the start, I leave my mind behind. Conscious thought is too slow; I have to rely on subconscious realizations. Everything is coming so fast, such a torrent of impressions. I'm bouncing and the skis are moving so fast, and I'm aware that somehow my head knows what my feet are feeling on the ice or snow. My whole being is exploding down the mountain, but my main feeling as I look out of my helmet is, believe it or not, contentment."

And is the race different for women? No. Minnesota's Cindy Nelson, 23, winner of the bronze medal in 1976 at Innsbruck, speaks with affection of the experience: "It's exhilarating to work with the forces of speed on a mountainside, to control them, to use them. I like the thought patterns that arise. I also like the surprises. We train on a course, so we have a thorough anticipation of every nuance, but there are still surprises in every race. Some are very good. If I make a turn that is surprisingly good, I'll scream—it makes me that happy."

Racers who find peace and happiness at 70 mph are a breed unto themselves, although of the genus that includes bullfighters and cliffdivers. And like them a downhill racer may be plagued by an old or new injury—Mill, for example, has had no fewer than six knee operations, two broken legs and a fractured arm. Nelson has had two broken ankles, a dislocated hip and a broken shoulder. And the pressures of a big race—the Olympic downhill is, of course, the biggest of all—keep mounting, threatening to thaw the icy control a racer must hold.

Then there are the technological factors. Boots must be precisely tightened, bindings exactly tuned, skis waxed correctly, edges perfectly sharpened, racing suits fitted to the skin so there isn't so much as a flickering ripple to catch the air. All that equipment must be employed to maximum effect if there is to be any chance for victory. The downhill is an event in which each second is split into 100 parts. The mistaken press of a ski edge that creates unwanted friction against the snow for a distance of no more than 10 yards over a course 3,500 yards long can drop a racer from first to 10th place. And then come the most critical factors of all: the weather and the mountain. Nothing matters quite so much as the way the course has been carved into the contours of the slope. Each mountain—and each downhill—has its own personality, its own quirks and beauties, its own peculiar way of testing a racer. Each descente is unto itself, but there are some grand qualities that are imperative for a course to be a classic. Jim (Moose) Barrows, the U.S. downhill coach, says, "There are four major elements in a good course: 1) high-speed turns; 2) a section where a racer proves he can take high speed in a prolonged tuck position; 3) a demand for endurance; and 4) a moment of truth, a difficult situation that requires extremely precise technical ability and that also demands that the racer show mental discipline and courage."

The most honored mountain face of them all is the Streif at Kitzbühel in Austria, the site of the celebrated Hahnenkamm race that has been held for 40 years. The day of the Hahnenkamm is practically an Austrian national holiday, drawing more than 25,000 bellowing spectators. The vertical drop is 2,830 feet over 3,510 meters, almost two and a quarter miles, and there is no greater test of the downhiller's derring-do. Racers speak of competing in the Hahnenkamm as if it were a religious pilgrimage. The coach of the Austrian team, Karl Kahr, carries the sobriquet Downhill Charlie, because he has both raced in the event and coached others in it for years. When Downhill Charlie speaks of the course at Kitzbühel it is with both awe and affection. "It can be compared to no other," he says. "There is the Mausefalle [Mouse Trap] at the start. It requires incredible willpower to jump off into that void. The turns are not round, and the course is not rhythmical. It is fast. It is spectacular. To win at Kitzbühel is the dream of every downhiller."

Next to Kitzbühel in the hearts of downhill racers is the Lauberhorn at Wengen, Switzerland, a cruel and almost un-endurably long course—about two and three quarter miles. Downhill Charlie speaks of that one with reverence, too, saying, "In the upper third there is the Hundschopf [Hound's Head], where you enter between two rocks, a very narrow way. And then you jump into a void. The course is very steep all through, and very fast. It has many difficulties—and some of these you must negotiate after you have been racing for a full two minutes and you are so tired and have hardly any strength left."

These are the two best downhills, but there are perhaps two dozen other really good ones, each with its own character. There is Val Gardena in the Dolomites of northern Italy, with its deadly fast start and its Kamelsprünge (Camel Jumps) in the middle. There is Val d'Isère in the French Alps, with its icy chutes and its infamous compression, a sudden floor at the bottom of a high-speed drop that compresses the racer into himself. There is tough and turny Patscherkofel above Innsbruck, site of the 1976 Olympics and the magnificent victory of the Austrian Franz Klammer in a performance that is considered the best single downhill run ever made. There is Schladming in Austria, where crowds of 30,000 or more stand along its wild drop-off schuss to the finish. And there is Ruthie's Run in Aspen, Colo., with the hair-raising Strawpile Turn that some down-hillers call the single most difficult maneuver in racing.

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