When downhill skiing race-course design wizard Bernhard Russi first surveyed Rosa Khutor, the designated venue for Alpine ski racing at the Sochi Games, he turned to a colleague and made an ominous prediction: “We will need at least 1,000 side-slippers.”
Volunteers harden the women's downhill slope at the Rosa Khutor Alpine center on Monday in advance of the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Russi was standing near the start of the men’s and women’s Olympic downhills, which begin amid a steep and barren bowl at the top of 7,612-foot-high Rosa Peak. You can’t get a Zamboni up there, but the racers will need a hard, consistent surface to compete, so much of the snow preparation will fall to crews of side-slippers, whose job is to slide sideways down the course, smoothing it out with the metal edges of their skis.
Finding a thousand expert skiers to do this job would be a tall order anywhere, let alone Russia, where Alpine skiing culture isn’t very deep. And yet the size and skill level of the on-hill workforce could largely determine the character of men’s and women’s downhill courses, where training runs begin on Thursday.
Overseeing the whole operation are top officials from the International Ski Federation (FIS), who travel all winter every winter with Alpine skiing’s World Cup tour, which takes a month-long hiatus for the Games. No one is more experienced with managing a downhill course.
A volunteer checks the men's downhill slope at the Rosa Khutor Alpine center.
As always, their main concern is safety. At least a few side-slippers are guaranteed to lose their footing on the steep upper section of the course and slide like sacks of potatoes with sharp edges attached, possibly crossing into the race line itself. No greater fear grips race organizers than the possibility of an 80-mile-per-hour collision between a racer and a person or object that crosses the racer’s path.
Once a downhill race is underway, there might be two or even three racers on the course at any given time. If an obstacle appears in the race line, designated course workers will use brightly colored flags to wave the oncoming racers off course. (That happened to American racer Julia Mancuso in the giant slalom, ruining her chance to defend her gold medal from 2006.)
In Switzerland, where Russi comes from, the national guard is often deployed for side-slipping and other course maintenance. Working with big backpacks and green fatigues, the soldiers do much of the heavy lifting to clear fresh snow, string safety fences and move equipment around the hill. If the weather is really bad, they sometimes work through the night with head lamps on.
Courtesy of Steve Prawdzik
A member of the volunteer slip-sliding crew in action before recent race in Beaver Creek, Colorado.
At the Salt Lake City Games 12 years ago, snowstorms deposited heaps of Utah’s famous powder on the downhill courses at Snowbasin. But organizers there mobilized teenaged racers from at least a half dozen junior ski teams from the surrounding areas − fearless and tireless boys and girls who could act as a rapid reaction force. It was an experience of a lifetime for us.
I was a ski coach in the winter of 2001-02, working with junior racers from the Snowbird Ski Education Foundation. When the Olympics came to town, I chaperoned a dozen of my athletes volunteering as a “slip crew” at the women’s downhill, which was also designed by Russi and named “Wildflower.” We were issued credentials and Olympic uniforms, and went to work getting that beautiful course ready for the best ski racers in the world.
Out on the Olympic course, my athletes were adventurous little speed demons, all too happy to zip straight down a long pitch to build their speed and then execute a little hockey stop into a pile of fresh snow. On race days, they did 10 or more laps from the top to the bottom, slipping a 30-second section of the race line before veering off to some safe perch while a competitor went by, then skiing back out to do another section.
Working on a slip crew was such a fun experience that it’s not surprising that people get hooked on it. Groups such as Colorado’s Talon Crew have been formed to travel to various races and do the job. Their ranks include the kind of devoted ski bums who don’t exist in a town such as Krasnaya Polyana, which was a construction site for the last seven years (and still is, apparently).
At any rate, the early weather forecasts suggest that Rosa Khutor won’t be subjected to the extreme weather events that turned Alpine skiing into an epic at Vancouver, where during countless postponements, the course workers came down from the mountain with outlandish stories to tell before heading for their base, a warm tent with kegs and occasional good-will visits from appreciative athletes.
But if the bad weather comes in, the best choice for organizers might just be to let the courses go untended and grow wild like they used to back in the early days of ski racing. It will only give the winners bigger bragging rights for surviving Russi’s latest ride.