Olympics Winter

Alpine Skiing History

Skiing has been around for thousands of years, probably as long as 5,000 years in Scandinavia where cave paintings depict hunters pushing over snow using large animal bones on their feet.
Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark won both slalom and giant slalom gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. ((Associated Press))

Skiing has been around for thousands of years, probably as long as 5,000 years in Scandinavia where cave paintings depict hunters pushing over snow using large animal bones on their feet. This would have been for what today we call Nordic skiing, as opposed to downhill or Alpine skiing.

Animal bones gave way to various woods such as spruce, combinations of birch, beech, hickory and ash. These multi-laminated wood skis remained popular for events such as cross-country skiing, but Alpine skiers switched to the metal skis that were introduced in the early-1950s. Then came fibre-reinforced plastic skis, then combinations of metal and plastic.

In the 1800s, cross-country skiing had become a popular leisure activity and mode of transportation in Scandinavia. But the sport didn't gain widespread popularity until a Norwegian explorer named Fridtjof Nansen journeyed to Greenland on a pair of cross-country skis in 1888. Inspired by Nansen's feat, eager mountaineers from France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria imported pairs of Scandinavian skis for themselves.

Skis started popping up all over Europe but skiers soon found that Nordic skiing techniques didn't work on the mountainous Alpine terrain. Enthusiasts were forced to adapt the equipment to make it more stable and forgiving on downhill slopes. They also experimented with new turns and pole usage to navigate the steeper slopes of the Alps. It was from these picturesque mountains that Alpine skiing derived its name.

Canadians and the Crazy Canucks

Dave Murray (left), and Ken Read made up part of the iconic Canadian ski quartet that also included Steve Podborski and Dave Irwin. ((Canadian Press))
Canadians have graced the Olympic Alpine skiing podium 10 times, climbing to the top step on four occasions. Lucille Wheeler collected Canada's first Olympic Alpine medal, winning downhill bronze at the 1956 Games. At the next Olympics, Ottawa's Anne Heggtveit blew away the field by 3.3 seconds to earn Canada's first and only slalom gold. Nancy green skied to golden victory in 1968 on the Giant Slalom.

Nancy Greene of Rossland, B.C., is the most decorated Canadian Alpine skier in history. Greene's determination and skill led the first World Cup champion to giant slalom gold and slalom silver at the 1968 Olympics.

Kreiner's upset victory over Mittermaier in 1976 was the talk of the Innsbruck Games. Four years later, Steve Podborski led the men's team, lovingly nicknamed the Crazy Canucks, to its only podium performance in Lake Placid. After favourite Ken Read crashed 15 seconds into the race when a binding popped open, Podborski thrilled the Canadian contingent with his bronze-medal run.

Karen Percy gave the hometown fans two reasons to cheer at the 1988 Calgary Games. The speed racer zipped to bronze medals in downhill and the inaugural Olympic super-G. Kerrin Lee-Gartner did the unexpected by winning gold in the women's downhill at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, becoming the first North American to win the event.

Canada's last Olympic Alpine success came in Lillehammer, when Edi Podivinsky earned the second Olympic medal in men's Alpine history by winning bronze in the downhill.

Continuous improvements to equipment, increased ski facilities and the development of rope tows, T-bars, chair lifts and gondolas boosted the sport's popularity. Skiers no longer needed to spend half a morning climbing the side of a mountain only to whisk to the bottom in about a minute.

Early speed racers

England's Arnold Lunn and Austrian Hannes Schneider invented modern Alpine ski racing. Lunn spent years traveling in the Alps and believed it was a prime locale for ski competitions. In 1922, he organized the first slalom event in Muerren, Switzerland. Lunn banded together with Schneider the following year to arrange the Arlberg-Kandahar combined slalom and downhill event, which is widely viewed as the first competitive international Alpine contest.

The International Ski Federation (FIS) was founded in Chamonix, France, in 1924 during the first Winter Olympics. Nordic skiing was part of the original Winter Olympic program, but the fledgling sport of Alpine racing was left out.

Lunn lobbied FIS to sanction Alpine events, and the governing body agreed. The first FIS world championships for men's downhill and slalom events began in 1931. Women didn't compete in world championships until 1950.

FIS's inclusion of Alpine events paved the way for their Olympic inclusion. The men's and women's combined event debuted at the 1936 Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, although the annual World Cup circuit did not start until 1967.

Downhill and slalom competitions were added as separate Olympic events at the 1948 Games in St. Moritz. The giant slalom joined the Olympic program at the 1952 Oslo Games, the same year the combined competition was dropped. The 1988 Calgary Games saw the addition of super-G skiing, which combines the speed of downhill with the technical skills of the slalom. The Calgary Olympics also reinstated the combined, which includes downhill and slalom skiing.

Golden Olympians

Perhaps because of the sheer speed and excitement of the sport, and because of its overtones of a jet-setting resort lifestyle, Alpine skiing has become one of the glamour events of the Winter Olympics, producing an impressive array of champions.

Andrea Mead Lawrence of the United States won the women's slalom and giant slalom at the 1952 Oslo Games to become the first multiple Olympic gold medallist in Alpine. Four years later at the 1956 Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, Toni Sailer became the first skier to capture all three men's Alpine events (downhill, giant slalom and slalom) at the same Olympics.

Italian Alberto Tomba duplicated Stenmarks feat at the 1988 Calgary Games, and then became the first skier to defend an Olympic title by winning the 1992 giant slalom four years later in Albertville, France. ((Philippe Bouchon/AFP/Getty Images))
Marielle and Christine Goitschel, teenaged sisters from France, were a sensation at the 1964 Games in Innsbruck, finishing one-two in the giant slalom, with Christine winning the slalom. Marielle skied to a second gold in the slalom at the 1968 Grenoble Games. France's Jean-Claude Killy was the big story at those Games. He matched Sailer's triple win, sweeping all three men's alpine disciplines to become skiing's greatest icon of the 1960s.

At the 1976 Innsbruck Games, Germany's Rosi Mittermaier came within a fraction of a second of becoming the only woman to sweep all the Olympic alpine events. Mittermaier raced to gold in the slalom and downhill but had to settle for silver in the giant slalom behind 18-year-old upset winner Kathy Kreiner, a native of Timmins, Ont., who won Canada's only gold medal at those Games.

Technical specialist Ingemar Stenmark was the next big name in men's skiing. The skilled Swede won slalom and giant slalom gold in Lake Placid. Stenmark was still on top of the skiing world in 1984 but he was unable to defend his titles at the Sarajevo Games when it was ruled he earned too much money to be considered an amateur.

Alberto Tomba, another great technical skier, grabbed the reins from Stenmark. The Italian won the slalom and giant slalom at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. He became the first skier to defend an Olympic title by winning the 1992 giant slalom in Albertville.

Swiss skier Vreni Schneider won slalom and giant slalom gold in Calgary. She returned to Lillehammer six years later to reclaim slalom gold, becoming the first three-time gold-medal winner in the women' events. She also won a giant slalom bronze and silver in the combined in Lillehammer.

Katja Seizinger of Germany matched Schneider's feat, climbing the Olympic podium five times. She is first woman to repeat as an event winner, taking downhill gold in 1994 and at the 1998 Nagano Games.

Austria's Hermann Maier is the latest living legend of skiing. The Herminator won gold in the giant slalom and super-G and impressed even when he lost, as he did when a spectacular crash took him out of the downhill in 1988. He missed the 2002 Olympics after suffering a serious injury in a motorcycle crash, but is expected to be a medal favourite at Torino 2006.

Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt won a gold medal in the super-G and bronze in the giant slalom at the 1992 Albertville Olympics. Aamodt continued his success at the Lillehammer Games, claiming silver medals in the downhill and combined and a bronze in the super-G. In the 2002 Games, Aamodt picked up gold medals in the Alpine combined and the super-G events. He is the only Alpine skier to have won seven Olympic career medals.

Janica Kostelic of Croatia was the real star of the Alpine events at Salt Lake City 2002. Dubbed the Croatian Senation, the 20-year-old Kostelic set an Olympic record by capturing four medals. She took gold in slalom, giant slalom and combined to go along with a silver in super-G.

Kostelic joined Killy and Sailer as the only skiers with three gold medals at one Olympics and became the first woman to pull off the feat.

At the 2006 Torino Games, the Canadian alpine team again failed to make it to the podium following a trio of tantalizing but ultimately agonizing fourth-place finishes.

The battle for Alpine gold will only get more difficult in 2010 as a new quota system instituted by the International Ski Federation means Canada can only allocate spots for 14 skiers, down from 17 in Torino.