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Para Sport 101: Everything You Need To Know About Alpine Skiing At The Paralympics

By Luke Hanlon | March 04, 2022, 12:30 a.m. (ET)

Andrew Kurka prepares to ski down the slope at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.

 

The best alpine skiers in the world will be on full display this month at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.


While the primary goal of all alpine disciplines is to get down a course as fast as possible, the races each require different skills. Technical events focus more on agility, while speed events focus more on, you guessed it, speed. 


That speed and agility will take center stage in Beijing when the Paralympics start on March 4. The first alpine event will take place on March 5, and races will be contested all the way until March 13, the last day of the Games.


There are five different alpine competitions at the Games: downhill, giant slalom, slalom, super-G and super combined. When accounting for the classifications, the Paralympics include 30 medal events for alpine skiing — 15 for men, and 15 for women.


The Classifications

Within each of the five alpine races are three primary classifications: sitting, standing and visually impaired.


Each of these classifications have their own sub-categories based on the impairments of each athlete. While some competitions hand out medals for each sub-category, the Paralympics use a factoring system to award medals for only the three main groups. Results are calculated by adding a percentage to the athlete’s race time. The percentage is specific to each sub-category in each classification.


Sitting: Sit skiers have some impairment that affects their lower body. There are three classes of sit skiing, with each class being determined by how much functionality athletes have in their legs. That ranges from athletes who have a slight decrease in functionality in their legs or hips — and they can decide at the start of their careers whether to be a sit or standing skier — to athletes who have little to no leg functionality and rely on their arms to guide the sit ski.


Sit skis are fitted chairs that are attached on top of a single ski. The chairs feature a belt and a shock-absorbing device to help the skiers navigate uneven terrain. Some sit skiers hold outriggers, which are poles that have short ski blades on their ends to help the skiers keep their balance and steer through a course.


Standing: Standing skiing has nine classes, as impairments to the arms, legs or both can affect what class athletes compete in. This means you could see skiers using two poles or one pole, or skiers with no arms. Some standing skiers use two skis, but others only use one. There are a lot of variables.


Standing skiers use their poles to create more speed and to keep their balance. They are also used to knock down gates during a run.


Visually Impaired: There are three sub-categories for visually impaired skiers, and each one is determined by how limited the athlete’s field of vision is. Athletes that have the lowest visual acuity must wear eyeshades during a race.


All visually impaired skiers use a guide during a run. The guides use verbal cues to help the skiers navigate the course. It is common for the guides and the skiers to wear headsets so the guide can easily communicate with the skier.


The Races

Here’s an in-depth look at the five different alpine races that will be featured at the Paralympics.


Downhill: The downhill is about as simple as the name makes it sound. The main objective is to ski down a mountain as fast as possible. Unlike other events that feature a lot of turns or quick cuts, downhill is mainly about speed. Skiers travel at speeds over 60 miles per hour while competing in the downhill.


It is not a straight shot all the way down, as there are gates that athletes need to stay within. This requires an immense amount of balance to avoid falling at such high speeds. If an athlete misses a gate, they are disqualified. Athletes get one run in the downhill, with the fastest time determining the winner.


Longer skis are used in downhill to maximize speed and stability.


Super-G: Super-G stands for super giant slalom, and it serves as a hybrid discipline of the downhill and slalom. There’s less of a vertical drop than the downhill, with the gates closer together, but it’s a longer course than the slalom or giant slalom. That means a mixture of speed, precision and agility is required for success in the super-G.


Like the downhill, the super-G is competed in one run, with the fastest times determining the final order.


Giant Slalom: The slalom races mainly test an athlete’s agility, as they zig-zag down a mountain, passing through many gates along the way. The giant slalom is a longer course than the slalom and features fewer gates, making it the fastest technical event.


The giant slalom is competed over two runs at two different courses. The time of both runs is added together to determine the final order.


Slalom: Unsurprisingly, slalom features a shorter course than giant slalom with more gates. This is the most technical discipline in alpine, requiring a ton of agility and balance. Athletes use shorter skis in the slalom to allow for faster turns.


Determining the final order is the same as giant slalom: two runs on two different courses, with the fastest aggregate time winning.


Super Combined: The combined event is said to determine the best all-around alpine skier by testing them in a technical and speed event. Also known as alpine combined, the event includes two runs: one of either downhill or super-G and one run of slalom, with the overall time determining the final order. While skiers typically specialize in either technical or speed events, both skills are required to win the super combined.

Luke Hanlon

Luke Hanlon is sportswriter and editor based in Minneapolis. He is a freelance contributor to USParaAlpineSkiing.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.