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Olympic Downhill Course is a Bear

posted: 01/01/2000

Snowbasin, Utah Jan. 24, 2002 (AP by Tim Korte)--Daron Rahlves says the twisting, high-speed Olympic downhill course demands strict focus. Alessandro Fattori compares it to a motocross track. Kjetil Andre Aamodt expects a true champion to win.

Take a steep start and knee-knocking finish, add some gnarly turns, throw in a few high-speed sidehills where one foot glides lower than the other and--since it's a downhill--make the skiers pop a few jumps. Mix it all up and you get the Grizzly downhill course.

The Snowbasin course, one of the steepest in the world, breaks the mold from previous Olympics.

"It's the busiest course I've ever seen,'' said Rahlves, the American who won last year's super-G world title. "It's edge to edge the whole way except for a short, sidehill flat.''

Finn Gundersen, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee's deputy venue manager, describes it as "a combination of speed, blind turns, fallaway turns, off-cambers, whatever terms you want to use for different types of terrain."

"It's different, and it's going to be extremely challenging,'' he said.

In previous Olympics at Lake Placid (1980), Sarajevo (1984), Calgary (1988), and Nagano (1998), downhill courses favored Gliders--often heavier racers able to convert their size into speed on relatively flat slopes.

That won't work at Snowbasin, which has an average pitch of 29 percent. Famed downhills like the Birds of Prey at Beaver Creek, Colo., and Kitzbuehel, Austria, average 28 percent.

The difference, though, is Snowbasin's undulating, technical midsection. Fly too far off a jump or take too long to enter a turn, and you'll be working hard--maybe scrambling uphill--to reach the next gate.

"We have high speeds, which is characteristic of downhills, but less gliding and more turning, more judgment, more understanding of lines, and you can't always see what's coming,'' Gundersen said.

Grizzly, the men's course, begins on a 70 percent pitch just below the peak of Mount Ogden. Skiers will reach 80-mph right away, then try to hold speed through a long, angled flat where they'll be leaning to the left.

Then comes the first jump, where during training for World Cup races last February racers sailed 120 to 170 feet. Quickly after landing, there's a sweeping left turn and then a sweeping right.

"After that, the course is a series of blind turns, fallaway turns, lots of change in terrain, sections of very high speeds followed by sections where you are slowed down in order to ski the terrain,'' Gundersen said.

Racers often can't see what's ahead. Lose your line, Rahlves warns, and "you'll be climbing up those sidehills.'' Meanwhile, compressions crunch the thighs and lower back.

"It's a little bit like a motocross track, bumpy and wavy. You feel like you're in the bobsleigh,'' said Fattori, the Italian who placed second in super-G at this month's World Cup stop in Kitzbuehel.

A controlled descent through the gates sets up the final jump, where racers seem to be looking down from a 30-story office tower to the finish. They'll plunge onto the 74 percent grade and zip to the bottom at up to 85 mph.

"The nearest thing to it is the course in Lillehammer, but even that has one mellow section,'' Rahlves said. "It's also sort of like Kitzbuehel in the sense that you can't relax on your skis at all, or ever let your guard down or slow down the attack mode.''

The women's course, named Wildflower, begins on a 60 percent grade just below the men's start and parallels Grizzly to a shared finish area. Its three jumps are smaller than on Grizzly, but the Wildflower is no daisy.

"It's the same combination of jumps, fallaways and extreme speed,'' Gundersen said. "It flows very nicely down the mountain. It has a nice rhythm. The terrain has a nice shape.''

Both downhill events promise to be a treat for 23,500 cowbell-ringing fans who jam the sprawling Snowbasin stadium, the larrgest Olympic crowd outside the opening and closing ceremonies.

"We'll see a good Olympic champion in the downhill,'' said Aamodt, the Norwegian veteran. "You have jumps, technical parts and gliding. It's a challenging course and I'm looking forward to it.''

Copyright (c) 2000 The Associated Press

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