What are the differences between the alpine skiing disciplines?

Some winter sport disciplines may seem similar but a closer look shows the differences between them are extensive. Do you know your ice dancing from your pairs skating? Could you explain the difference between slopestyle and Big Air? Don’t worry - Olympics.com has you covered with a new series explaining the nuances of the sports you’ll see at Beijing 2022. Following short track and speed skating, we now take a look at the six alpine skiing disciplines.

By Jo Gunston
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

If you take nothing else away from this post explaining the differences between the alpine skiing disciplines at Beijing 2022, understand this: there are two types of events – technical and speed.

Most skiers focus on one or the other but there are also all-rounders who participate in multiple disciplines of the six events. They are the tired-looking ones come the end of the Games on 20 February.

The speed events are the downhill and comic-book sounding super-G; the technical events are the giant slalom and slalom, and combined is a mix of both. Both men and women compete in each discipline and there is also the mixed team parallel slalom event, which debuted successfully at PyeongChang 2018.

The speed disciplines see skiers bomb down the slope on one run, as fast as their skies will carry them. The technical events see a more rhythmical swish-swish down the mountain, from one side of the slope to the other, as the skiers navigate carefully positioned gates. They complete two runs, with the fastest 30 going through to a second run. The skiers then race in reverse order, building to a crescendo as the fastest skiers from the first run are the last to go in the second.

What are the differences between the alpine skiing disciplines?

Downhill

Arguably the premiere event of alpine skiing, the downhill is as basic as it gets: point the skis down the mountain and go. Fastest wins.

Speeds of around 130 kph are common but can be more depending on the course. French skier Johan Clarey was the first to break the 160 kph barrier in a World Cup race, in 2013 on the Wengen Lauberhorn course in Switzerland.

The video below shows British former pro alpine ski racer Graham Bell taking a point-of-view video of that very same downhill run the weekend Clarey broke the barrier. Hang on to your hats.

Jumps of dozens of metres are also a feature. If you hear the commentator describe the skier as ‘winding down the windows’ while hurtling over said jump, this is not a good thing. An aerodynamic tuck position is what the skier is aiming for, not arms waggling everywhere trying to keep their balance.

There are gates the athletes have to go round but they are more to keep racers from taking shortcuts as the course is mainly defined by the natural terrain.

Downhill skiers are usually taller and heavier than technical skiers and must have massive strength in their legs. The downhill is the longest course with the highest speeds so, on crossing the finish line, skiers are often bent double out of puff and doing anything to take the weight off their burning lactic-acid-filled thighs. If they’re not, they’ve not gone hard enough.

Racers are allowed several practice runs before the actual race, which gives some indication as to who has got the run of the hill and is in form. This is especially of interest in Beijing where the mountains are rather more unknown than those regularly skied on the World Cup circuit. Practice runs on the course may seem obvious, but not in all forms of alpine skiing is this the case. See super-G below.

Super-G

The super-G stands for super giant slalom, an event that combines the speed of downhill with the more precise turns of giant slalom.

There’s less of a vertical drop than the downhill and gates are placed closer together. Each skier makes one run down a single course and the fastest time wins.

The doozy here? Skiers are not allowed a trial run. Instead, they have 90 minutes to inspect the course on the race morning, discussing each nuance of the slope at length with their coaches, but then, get this, they must remember the course!

What this leads to is the unusual sight of skiers at the top of the track, waiting for their turn, eyes closed, visualising the run, swerving backwards and forwards as they mimic the course in their minds.

Giant Slalom

The fastest technical event, the giant slalom is contested over two heats on the same day, with the times added together to give the winner.

The courses are different and skiers reach speeds of around 80 kph.

The start of the second run is in reverse order from the top 30 rankings of the first run.

Slalom

The slalom is the most technical event in alpine skiing with gates set very close together. Skiers need to perform fast turns and rapid changes of direction. The trick is almost not to think about it too much but to get into a rhythm and let the skis do the talking.

The slalom is the alpine event with the shortest course and the quickest turns but skiers still reach around 60-70 kph.

The event is again contested in two rounds on the same day and on two different courses. The first 30 skiers from the first run start in the reverse order of the ranking to compete in the second run. The times of the two runs are added together to determine the final ranking.

Combined

The combined event – which only takes place at the Olympics currently, as for the second successive season it has been removed from the World Cup calendar – finds the best alpine skiing all-rounder. In Beijing, this will take the form of a high-speed downhill run (it can also be super-G) followed by the slalom, with both competitions on the same day.

The times of the two runs are added together to determine the final ranking, with the skier’s speed and technical abilities, as well as their stamina, tested to the max.

Mixed Team Parallel Slalom

The mixed team parallel slalom debuted at PyeongChang 2018. The event was hugely popular due to the fact the skiers face off against each other in a duel held on two identical courses, which sit side by side on the slope. Spectators and viewers could therefore immediately see the winner and loser, and their very different reactions, especially in the latter stages of the knockout competition.

Four skiers from each country – two men and two women – take on four skiers from another country in each round, winning a point for each race win. If after four races both teams have the same number of points, so 2-2, then the team with the best aggregate time wins.

The event starts with a round of 16 before the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.

The interesting aspect here is whether the skier can focus on their own race or will they get put off by their adversary who may have inched ahead?

Mixed team parallel skiing
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

More things to watch out for in alpine skiing events

– The speedsters have much longer skis than the tech wizards.
– Some skiers put snow on the back of their necks before their run so they are wide awake and firing on all cylinders ahead of their race.
– A timing board sits at the bottom of the slope so watch for the skiers looking to see their position on the board before they've even come to a halt.

The alpine skiing schedule at Beijing 2022

6 Feb Men’s downhill
7 Feb Women’s giant slalom
8 Feb Men’s super-g
9 Feb Women’s slalom
10 Feb Men’s combined
11 Feb Women’s super-g
13 Feb Men’s giant slalom
15 Feb Women’s downhill
16 Feb Men’s slalom
17 Feb Women’s combined
19 Feb Mixed team parallel slalom