Originally created 02/11/02

Nothing but speed



SNOWBASIN, Utah - The Frenchman got off the bus and gazed at the top of the mountain where the men's downhill would begin.

He saw - splitting jagged rocks - a sheet of ice camouflaged by snow pretty heading much straight down for hundreds of feet until a wide turn.

"Holy ...," he murmured.

Ah, the thrills of Olympic downhill, the splendor of one of the signature sports of the Winter Games.

Framed by a postcard mountain setting and frozen in complicated simplicity is an almost perfect sport.

Speed is a foundation, virtually the essence, of virtually every sport.

Olympic downhill is pure speed with the simplest of rules. A competitor gets from Point A at the top of the mountain to Point B at a lower level as fast as his little blades, skin-tight uni and beating heart can carry him.

Everyone gets one shot at the mountain. No mulligans. Fastest guy, essentially skin to wind, wins.

Time is everything, the only thing. The mountain and the slick course make natural style deductions.

The Grizzly Course at Snowbasin is built for speed, one of the fastest courses in the world. There are technical factors for sure. But basically, skiers are immediately sent down what amounts to an icy elevator shaft and it's their job to hold together and to figure out the best path for optimum speed. Losing fractions of a second - caused by catching too much air off a jump, edging the snow too much or even twitching at the wrong time - can drop a competitor several places.

Competitors begin like they are bungee jumping - the wet-your-pants slope forcing them to accelerate from 0 to 70 miles per hour almost immediately. If the slope is not daunting enough, race officials water it down hours before the race to create an icy glaze to add to the velocity.

At various junctures on the course, skiers reach 90 miles per hour.

The speed spawns another aspect of pure sport - danger. Most of the glamor sports have clear danger. Sailing off a mountain faster than a speeding bullet certainly qualifies.

Along the course, there's fencing, called "de-fencing" for obvious reasons. Next to the fencing there is netting design to throw misdirected skiers back on the course, similar to the manner disgusted baseball fans toss back home run balls.

The safest place on the mountain is the course. On skis or on his butt, a competitor will eventually get down.

Sections of Grizzly have fascinating names with a western flavor: Flintlock Jump, Hibernation Point, Muzzleloader, Buffalo Jump. Skiers must go airborne at a couple of points on the hill. One of the airborne jumps is uphill. Muzzleloader has a kick - propelling a skier one direction while he needs to turn the opposite.

A brilliant morning along the Wasatch Range greeted competitors and fans Sunday. The snow-laden mountains were set off by a rich blue sky. Flags and colors of many nations made the grandstand below an international tapestry.

The snow was white and inviting.

It took thousands of spectators at least two hours through elaborate security to get to the vista. And the competition was essentially over after 10 skiiers. Two Austrians and two Norwegians set the top four, separated by .65 seconds, after only 15 minutes of competition.

Even non-ski gurus could figure out that by the time the guys from China, Argentina and Ireland went down, they had no shot.

The competition was settled so quickly that the grand setting overshadowed the technicalities.

It was as it should be. Nothing but speed counts here.

David McCollum, sports columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark., is part of the Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics).