Winter Olympic downhill - the ultimate test of raw speed
The Beijing Olympic alpine skiing programme launches on Sunday with the eagerly anticipated men's downhill.
Known as the ultimate test of raw speed, this downhill takes place on a previously untested course in Yanqing, making it a real challenge for some of skiing's daredevils.
Upwards of 12 racers are in the frame for a gold-medal finish but the slightest mistake can cost anyone dear.
AFP looks at five things to know ahead of Sunday's race.
- Kilde v Odermatt -
Aleksander Aamodt Kilde is shouldering the weight of an expectant Norway in his bid to carry on where the now-retired Aksel Lund Svindal left off at Pyeongchang 2018. He is guaranteed a battle royale with Swiss racer Marco Odermatt, the current leader of the World Cup overall standings. "Marco's an amazing skier. It's going to be a battle the whole of the Olympics and the rest of the season," said Kilde. Odermatt dubbed his friend and rival "definitely the bigger favourite for the downhill than me".
- Triple threat -
With the spotlight on the two World Cup high-flyers, there could be a way through the backdoor for a raft of pretenders, not least the Austrian pair Vincent Kriechmayr and Matthias Mayer, and Odermatt's teammate Beat Feuz. Kriechmayr is reigning double world speed champion while Mayer won downhill gold in 2014 and topped the super-G podium four years ago. Feuz's form on the demanding Kitzbuehel course is a sure indicator that the Swiss racer would thrive on what promises to be tough, icy conditions.
- Jansrud the outsider -
While Norwegian teammate Kilde has been hogging the spotlight, experienced Kjetil Jansrud goes into the speed events as an outsider as he returns from a knee injury sustained in December. "My physical shape is fine, skiing shape is as good as it can get with the months of training and races I’ve had," said Jansrud, a four-time Olympic medallist including super-G gold in 2014. "I’m eager to try to prove myself as much as I can and we’ll just have to see at the end of the downhill and super-G how it turned out, but the chances are there. We have a proud history in alpine skiing for Olympic Games and that’s what we have to deliver."
- Wind worries on unknown piste -
The man-made Yanqing pistes rely on artificial snow and stand out on a bare mountain range in one of China’s most arid regions. Sceptics questioned the logic behind it, but skiers have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the course -- untested after World Cup events were twice cancelled because of Covid-19 restrictions. "It's a really great slope, they have built up an incredible slope," said Odermatt. "It was fun to ski." But Saturday's third training session was cancelled because of high winds, an uncontrollable factor that could well come back to play havoc with the alpine schedule.
- Cowboy grooms the snow -
The unlikely figure of American Tommy Johnston, who farms in Wyoming for half the year, helps ensure snow of the highest standard. The self-professed cowboy happens to be one of the world's leading snow-surface experts. "My hayfields are the same way -- I want them to be perfect," he said. The surface at the National Alpine Skiing Centre in Yanqing comprises hard-packed, artificial snow -- much to the delight of Johnston and racers. "Snow conditions are some of the best I’ve ever seen," purred Kriechmayr.