Alpine skiing 101: Origins and Olympic history
Cross-country skiing has centuries of history as a method of transportation, but alpine skiing only came into existence in the mid-nineteenth century as a sporting activity. The sport spread throughout Europe and the United States as miners held skiing competitions as entertainment during the winter. Improvements to equipment, as well as the mechanisms to transport skiers up hills, helped popularize the sport.
Alpine skiing debuted with two events: men’s and women’s combined. Germany won four of six medals, including both golds and both silvers.
Alpine skiing expanded to three events and crowned its first triple medalist: Henri Oreiller of France. Gretchen Fraser earned the first medal (combined silver) as well as the first gold medal (slalom) for the U.S.
Three events were contested once again, but instead of combined (which disappeared until 1988), giant slalom made its Olympic debut. Norway’s Stein Eriksen thrilled the host nation by winning the inaugural giant slalom gold as well as a silver in slalom.
Austria’s Toni Sailer completed a gold-medal hat trick by winning all three events. In his first event, the giant slalom, he led Austria to the first Olympic sweep in alpine skiing by defeating his nearest teammate by 6.2 seconds, the largest margin of victory ever recorded in an Olympic alpine event. He became alpine skiing’s youngest male champion at 20 years, 73 days.
The first Games in which alpine events were held on American snow, and the first Winter Games televised in the United States. Downhill bronze medalist Traudl Hecher of Austria became the youngest alpine medalist (male or female) in history at 16 years, 145 days.
Billy Kidd and Jimmy Heuga became the first U.S. men to win Olympic alpine medals. Other firsts included: the first time events were clocked to the hundredth of a second, the first women’s tie (women’s giant slalom silver), the first women’s sweep (Austria in downhill) and the first sisters to go 1-2 in an individual Olympic event (Marielle and Christine Goitschel of France).
France’s Jean-Claude Killy won all three men’s gold medals (downhill, giant slalom, slalom).
Annemarie Moser-Proell earned two silver medals, but Austria failed to win gold for the first time since 1936. Slalom champion Francisco Fernandez Ochoa secured the first winter medal for Spain.
Austria’s Franz Klammer earned the nickname “Kaiser,” or king, by edging the 1972 downhill champion Bernhard Russi of Switzerland by .33 seconds. Slalom bronze medalist Hanni Wenzel became the first athlete to win an Olympic medal for Liechtenstein.
Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark swept gold in both men’s technical events, while Liechtenstein’s Hanni Wenzel swept gold in both women’s technical events.
The U.S. Ski Team’s best Olympic performance to date (five medals, including three gold) was also one of Austria’s worst (one bronze). Bill Johnson became the first American to win downhill gold at the Games. In men’s slalom, identical twins Phil and Steve Mahre went 1-2.
The newest alpine discipline (super-G) made its Olympics debut, and the combined event returned after a 40-year hiatus. The heavily favored Swiss team won 11 of 30 medals, including two golds by Vreni Schneider (women’s giant slalom, slalom) and one in men’s downhill by Pirmin Zurbriggen.
One-tenth of a second separated the men’s downhill medalists, with Austria’s Patrick Ortlieb winning gold. The women’s race was even closer, with the top three finishing within .09 seconds as Canada’s Kerrin-Lee Gartner defeated American Hilary Lindh.
The U.S. brought home four medals, including two gold. Tommy Moe scored a downhill upset by .04 seconds (the smallest margin of victory in an Olympic downhill) and then earned silver in super-G on his 24th birthday. Diann Roffe won the women’s super-G and Picabo Street took silver in the downhill.
Downhill gold medalist Jean-Luc Cretier of France became the oldest man at the time to win an Olympic event at 31 years, 291 days. The women’s super-G marked the closest alpine race in Olympic history. The medalists were separated by a mere .07 seconds, with Picabo Street winning gold by just .01 seconds.
Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt became the most decorated alpine skier in Olympic history, with seven career medals, by winning two gold medals in Salt Lake City. American Bode Miller emerged as the top alpine skiing star for the U.S. by winning silver in giant slalom and combined. On the women’s side, 20-year-old Croatian Janica Kostelic recovered from three 2001 knee surgeries to win four medals (a single-Games record), including three gold.
Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt won his second consecutive and third overall super-G gold medal, becoming the first alpine skier to win the same individual event three times. He also became the oldest alpine skiing medalist at 34. Croatia’s Janica Kostelic defended her combined title and also won super-G silver, giving her the most career medals (six) of any female alpine skier.
The United States had its best Olympic alpine skiing performance, earning eight medals, which was twice as many as any other country in Vancouver. Bode Miller and Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal both won a medal of every color. Maria Riesch claimed a pair of gold medals for Germany.