Tucked inside the rolling, arid hills of Beijing’s Yanqing district, Alpine skiing Olympians got their first taste of the ribbon of manmade snow that will host the 2022 Winter Olympics downhill and super-G competitions.
For the athletes participating in Thursday’s men’s downhill training session – the first of three such sessions before the real deal on Sunday – it was all about getting a feel for things.
“It’s a new course, it’s always difficult to make a picture of how it’s going to be, but today was, as expected, challenging,” Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, the world’s top-ranked men’s downhill skier, said. “High speeds on and off, jumps, terrain, a lot of things happening. It was a fun first run, and then we’ll see how it develops.”
Not only has the Yanqing downhill course never been featured on the World Cup circuit, it also did not host an Olympic test event due to the pandemic. Such events are typically staged in the months prior to an Olympics to determine if a venue is prepared for the Games, and they also give athletes a chance to familiarize themselves with their surroundings ahead of Olympic action.
Evidence of the uncharted nature of the Yanqing course was clear as early as the first run of Thursday’s first training session, when 2014 downhill gold medalist Matthias Mayer missed an early gate and went far outside the racing line multiple times during his run.
“He’s lost. He’s getting the GPS out trying to figure out his way down this hill,” two-time gold medalist Ted Ligety joked on commentary.
In total, roughly one in three skiers failed to successfully complete the course.
American Ryan Cochran-Siegle narrowly avoided a big crash during his training run after catching too much air on one of the course’s jumps. His teammate, Bryce Bennett, described the feeling of seeing some of the sport’s most experienced athletes spun out of sorts before starting his own run.
“I watch the first couple guys go and it just, like, gave me nerves. But then once I got going it was fine,” Bennett said. His time of 1:45.01 was 13th-fastest of the session, but sixth-best among skiers who made every gate. “It’s going to be a huge work in progress, but it was better to start with a run that was competitive versus having a run that was three seconds out.”
Bennett added that the unfamiliarity with the course could be an equalizer for underdog skiers and lead to a more wide-open medal race. Many venues on the World Cup circuit are featured annually to the point where experienced skiers know every curve by memory.
The Yanqing downhill course, nicknamed “The Rock,” has received mostly positive reviews due to its surface. Ligety described the feeling of skiing on artificial snow – which more accurately resembles shaved ice – as “like a vertical ice rink.” Controlled snow creation leads to better consistency up and down the course throughout the competition. 270 propeller-driven fan guns are stationed on the hill to make the snow.
The biggest cause for concern among athletes and race officials, overwhelmingly, has been the wind. Thursday’s session featured single-digit weather but nothing more than a slight breeze. However, the area is susceptible to days of heavy gusting wind, which can make ski racing difficult or even impossible. (Stay tuned to NBCOlympics.com for any weather updates that may affect competition throughout the Winter Olympics.)
Canada's James Crawford paced the field among skiers with valid runs at 1:44.34. Kilde finished seven hundredths back for the second-best time.