Of all the disciplines of alpine skiing, the descent is the most beautiful. As it seems. I’m not saying it, it’s… well, pretty much everyone, actually.
Didier Défago says he liked all types of racing, really. But all the same: “The descent, in terms of sensations, adrenaline, is something unique.” Word of Olympic champion. Gérard agrees, he who ticks the dates of Kitz ‘and Wengen every year in the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall.
The “superlative” downhill skiing. Question of slope, difficulty, risk. Speed of course. At 120 or 130 km / h, cruising is fun. Sometimes things go much faster: in 2013, the Frenchman Johan Clarey reached 161 km / h records on the Lauberhorn track. You have to imagine it. Gérard has had his “blue” removed for less than that on the highway and if he reaches half of it on his slats on Sunday, his legs are shaking like the picnic blank.
This is the type of ski race that really separates the professional from the amateur, Gérard thinks. It’s a trompe-l’oeil: he would not stand up on the ice of a slalom track, he would be unable to turn giant skis and he would lose all his means at the speed reached in super-G. But he doesn’t necessarily realize it. The descent seems inaccessible from wherever you look at it.
There are the technical characteristics. The drop is much higher there than in the other disciplines: from 800 to 1,100 meters for men, from 450 to 800 meters for women. The doors are gaping, 8 meters wide or more when the terrain allows it, to let the athletes draw the line they think is ideal.
But above all, there is the mythology that decades of grace and violence have installed. In the collective imagination, the descenders are gladiators, tightrope walkers, hotheads. They abandon their bodies to the void. They taunt the danger. They accept the idea of leaving their knees there, their season, their career, sometimes, more rarely of course, their life – a dozen deaths recorded since the 1950s. Accidents are a dramatic part of the spectacle as in motorsport.
No other ski race has this romantic potential. The testimonies of former champions who have survived the most vertiginous tracks of the circuit are worth the stories of sailing around the world, cycling epics or the lives of boxers.
The lyricism filters down to the austere “Regulations for international ski competitions” of the international federation: “A descent is characterized by the following six components: technique, courage, speed, risk taking, physical condition, determination. It must be possible to ski at varying speeds from start to finish. The competitor adapts his speed and performance to his technical capabilities according to his own determination. “
Defense of the territory
What other discipline grabs this kind of instructions in the marble of its official documentation? Once again, we have to imagine it. The descent is statutorily a territory of “risk taking” which can only be explored with “courage” and “determination”.
Obviously, such a territory defends itself. Spectators and competitors love nothing less than a descent that only has the name. Each new lead offered to specialists is judged by the yardstick of the speed it provides, the risk it involves, and the verdict is ruthless. He thought that Jeongseon’s, borrowed from a century-old forest for Pyeongchang 2018, was definitely not worthy of Olympic standards. That of Yanqing, north of Beijing, will also be severely assessed by purists in 2022.
But you don’t have to travel that far to defeat the myth. Take the Vertigine de Cortina d’Ampezzo, which is hosting a men’s downhill for the very first time at the World Championships: she took it for her grade during the first training because of a few curves torn from a giant slalom for “Brake” athletes as they approach a tricky jump. FIS officials pleaded for safety for a first full-scale test, and promised an adjustment between now and the race. Beat Feuz, Dominik Paris, Johan Clarey and the others ask no less.
And Gérard either.