With the Olympics drawing to a close, I just realized something--we didn't see any speed skiing at these games. Or the games before them. In fact, we haven't seen speed skiing's extreme take on the old go-down-a-hill-on-wooden-planks tradition since 1992 in Albertville, France, when for a brief moment we were all exposed to the sport's intense weirdness. As a ten year old kid watching those games, I loved it.
This lack of speed skiing makes me sad for a few reasons.
First and foremost, it's the world's fastest non-motorized sport. The current men's speed skiing record is an incredible 156.2 miles per hour, set by Italian Simone Origone in 2006, which is the fastest any human has ever gone on land without a motor. To put that speed into perspective, terminal velocity for a skydiving human--the rate at which it's impossible to fall any faster--is typically around 120 mph.
Here's Origone's record-breaking run (please excuse the music):
If the Olympics are truly about going harder, faster and further, it doesn't make much sense to exclude the fastest sport on Earth.
Second is the gear. It's designed to turn a skier speeding down a hill into an aerodynamic missile: helmets are custom made, honed in a wind tunnel, and they're beautiful; the suits are rubberized polyurethane-coated polypropylene, essentially a skin-tight Ziploc bag for your body, because the tiny pores in more breathable materials like Gore Tex catch the wind and slow you down; skis can measure up to eight feet long, and are too big to do anything but go straight down a hill; wide foam fairings fit behind the skiers calves, which are another aerodynamic touch to prevent a dangerously destabilizing vortex of air from swirling in a skier's wake; even the handles of the ski poles are crafted to fit into the aerodynamic profile of a perfect tuck.
All of this has the wonderful side effect of making speed skiers look like they're from another planet, or at least the future.
So why no speed skiing in Vancouver? Well, for one, it takes a specialized course with a straight, smooth downhill slope and an extended runoff area. The '92 games in Albertville, which featured speed skiing's only Olympic appearance (as a demonstration sport) happened to be right nearby Les Arcs, which is considered the best speed skiing venue in the world and is where most of the world records are set. A few other venues dot Europe, but in North America, there are only a handful.
Coincidentally enough, one of those rare North American venues, Sun Peaks, happens to be just four hours from Vancouver--about twice as far as Whistler, where the ski events were held this year, but still in the neighborhood. As a matter of fact, Sun Peaks is hosting a speed skiing event next weekend, immediately after the games close. So if you've left Whistler feeling like a 70 mph Lindsey Vonn downhill run just isn't fast enough, stick around.
If it's not the venue, what, then, is preventing such an inherently awesome sport from gracing our televisions once every four years? Its relative obscurity? Surely it's no more obscure than, say, four man bobsleigh. The equipment is expensive, which is a barrier to entry. And then, of course, there's the danger. As we learned tragically this year, a death in an inherently dangerous Olympic sport is still a rare shock, and speed skiing certainly raises the overall risk factor of the games.
But as someone who loves superlatives of human speed and a good aerodynamic helmet, I hope the world's fastest non-motorized sport can make it back into Olympic glory. Sochi, you have four years to start building your speed skiing slope--please get to work.
For more on speed skiing's weird tribe, see Rob Story's great piece "What's the Hurry" in the November 2006 issue of Skiing.
The comment on skydiving speeds and terminal velocity is inaccurate. Terminal velocity in the context of skydiving has to be more specific as there are multiple body configurations that all have vastly different average vertical fall rates.
120 mph is the average velocity for a skydiver falling in a belly to earth configuration, however the skydiving speed record is 262.8 mph.
@lethargic8 That is why I said "typically." The number is from a college physics textbook. If you've been lucky enough to go skydiving, even without going for the world record (I haven't, but I imagine some who read this site have) I'd think that figure would make 156 miles an hour seem pretty damn fast.
It's probably not an Olympic sport because they're not even moving or anything, just wrapping an aerodynamic skin over a human body to make a gravity-driven machine.
for god sake - on a science web site - use SI units !!
@J0sh, Its an American website aimed at the "pop" crowd - standard American units are perfect lol.
@Solace, you try going down a mountain at 100 MPH and then say they're not doing anything.
I would watch olympic speed skiing -- so much of the winter olympics is boring - figure skating hardly gets the adrenaline pumping.
I don't know the chances of crashing during this sport, but one problem I see with Olympic Speed Skiing is a human body fling out of control at 100-150mph live on world-wide television.
*flying not fling
@bdhoro87, listen up, Emperial Scum! We in the Rebel Alliance do not take kindly to denouncing metric units of measurements. You may have a Death Star, but we have easily convertible units! lolol
@kamploopstrout, I hate to burst you Star War's fanboy bubble, but Emperial is not a word, it's Imperial.
I see what you mean, but then again you could say the same thing about bobsled and luge. I'm sure there is actually a lot of skill and intricacies involved that one can't really understand until one has tried the sport for oneself.
Some similarly boring sports in America: drag racing and Nascar. If watching things go really fast in a straight line or round the same boring circle is interesting, then I guess this can be interesting too.
excuse the music? the music in the video is great music!
Yes but the we might have to correlate the dramatic crashes and explosions (in NASCAR/Drag RAcing)with some sort of ratings systems and them American's might look just horrid!
(Hey we love to watch em,and hate it when somebodys seriously hurt.......but its a part of the game)
P.S. Sincerely meant to my father who passed Drag Racing in 1996 at 55 years old.....Died with a Passion
I believe 167 mph is the record for cycling. Even that falls short of first place as the fastest, though.
Skydiving, as a sport, is first and foremost the "world's fastest non-motorized sport." Joseph Kittinger went at least 614 mph on his freefall from space in 1960.
This is a great article, and it would be awesome to see this in the Olympics, but I'm just bothered by that little bit of misinformation. It's similar to saying the corvette is the fastest car in the world. It's a lot faster than my car, but still not the fastest.
Very nice article John, and thanks for your support and interest from an old 92 participant. I also wish this pure speed sport could be in the Games but high speed venues are very hard to find. It is a very high rush sport and exciting to go that fast right on your own 2 feet. At the end of the 92 Games from what I was explained, the IOC got scared of the speeds and proposed to include the sport after 1992 as long as speeds were kept below 220 km/h for 5 years. Needless to say skiers were not impressed. I was told that two of the biggest national federations wrote in to the IOC to announce they were pulling out and going pro. That spelled the end of it's foray into amateur sports and back to the professional circuit which is going strong ever since with much faster speeds than in 92. All the best to the new young racers - Go Fast! Every Turn is a Sign of Fear!