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Into the great unknown — and fast: The never-before-seen Olympic downhill course

U.S. downhiller Travis Ganong trains Friday at the National Alpine Ski Centre in Yanqing, China. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

YANQING, China — Every Olympic skier arriving in China in the past week or so has had some version of the same experience. The highway stretches toward the mountains northwest of Beijing, and there in the distance, stark against a landscape of jagged, brown earth, is a lonely ribbon of white, unseen by any of them until that moment: the National Alpine Ski Centre, host of the Alpine skiing competition at these Winter Games.

When the first skiers launch themselves down Xiaohaituo Mountain (altitude: 7,149 feet) in Sunday’s traditional Alpine opener — the men’s downhill — they will be doing so on a speed course, nicknamed “The Rock,” that none of them have raced before, a course that had existed in their minds as little more than some drone video footage that was passed around last year and the handful of training runs they were permitted this week.

On Monday, the women’s competition gets underway on the technical course — nicknamed “The Ice River” — with the giant slalom as Team USA’s Mikaela Shiffrin, a three-time Olympic medalist and three-time World Cup overall champion, launches an ambitious program that could see her enter all five women’s races over an 11-day span.

Though Yanqing’s Olympic venue, with its 100 percent man-made snow and setup overseen by seasoned International Ski Federation (FIS) officials, has drawn mostly rave reviews from the assembled skiers this week, its distinguishing feature as a competition venue is its newness.

“New venue, new course, new snow,” said Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, the top-ranked man in the world this season in both the downhill and super-G. “It was really hard to imagine how it was going to be.”

There are familiar slopes around the globe — from the Alps to the Rockies to the Scandes — that the top World Cup skiers could race with their eyes closed. This is not one of them. Even if skiers get the hang of its turns and jumps during training this week, a shift in the weather could alter its character, leaving the athletes without a memory bank from which to draw.

“Normally, we race on the same tracks every year, and we always go back to the same venues, and as a rookie you learn these tracks and you build your way up to the point where you feel comfortable racing [on them],” U.S. downhiller Travis Ganong, a two-time Olympian, said this week after the first of three days of training runs. “And we have to do that now in three days.”

In Beijing, you have to be well-equipped to win gold

To have 33 coveted Olympic medals — in the men’s and women’s downhill, super-G, slalom, giant slalom and combined, plus the mixed-team event — decided on a slope so unproven seems capricious at first glance. But it also could prove to make these Olympics the sport’s ultimate test, with every skier in the same position of unfamiliarity.

“It’s unfortunate. It’s not ideal,” Ganong sad. “But everyone is in the same boat.”

“It’s always the best one who will win,” Italy’s Dominik Paris said. “You have to be a complete skier.”

Underpinning the competition, of course, is the unspoken threat of risk, inherent in a competition in which humans propel themselves downward at speeds of up to 90 mph, protected only by a helmet and their own abilities and experience. With a maximum incline of 68 degrees, Yanqing is considered one of the steepest venues in the sport.

“It’s uncomfortable. You don’t know what the terrain’s going to do. You’ve never been on it,” said Team USA’s Bryce Bennett, who won the World Cup downhill race at Val Gardena, Italy, in December. “So you’re kind of nervous at the start, but [you just have to] commit to it.”

The U.S. men haven’t medaled in an Olympic downhill since Bode Miller took bronze in Vancouver in 2010 and haven’t won gold since Tommy Moe in Lillehammer in 1994. In PyeongChang in 2018, the American men were shut out of the podium in all Alpine events for the first time since Nagano in 1998.

Typically, a new site outside of the World Cup circuit would have hosted one or more test events in the years before the Olympics, but the coronavirus pandemic scuttled those plans. China’s strict border controls during the pandemic made even a quick and casual recognizance mission out of the question. The first views anyone had of the course were on the bus ride to the Olympic Village at its base, followed by the first gondola trips up the mountain.

The icy truth about Olympic snowmaking

NBC’s cameras may not venture far beyond the pristine white of the snowy course, but the vast areas surrounding the resort are varying shades of brown. Yanqing sits near the edge of the Gobi Desert, with a frigid but arid climate that on average receives less than a foot of snow annually. Creating the blankets of snow that form the competition venues required the use of 272 propeller-driven fan guns.

Skiers described the snow quality here as “aggressive” — “grabby on the skis,” as Ganong put it.

“It’s pretty fun to ski, very enjoyable, an easy surface to be on,” he said. “It’s not ice. It’s not bumpy. It’s smooth. It’s in the sun. It’s just different from all the races we did in central Europe, where it’s really icy and bumpy and in-your-face.”

After a winter spent mostly among the classic World Cup resorts of Europe and North America, with their sleepy villages and classic, snow-covered vistas, the best skiers in the world will follow the ribbon of white to the top of an otherwise browned-out mountain and, at least on a clear day, will look out at the skyline of Beijing, some 50 miles to the southeast and home to 21 million residents.

“That’s the beauty of downhill racing,” Ganong said. “You always start at the very top of the mountain. Every downhill we get to race, we’ve always had an amazing view. This is just such a unique view, so different than anything we’ve seen before. It’s not like the European [venues], with trees and greenery everywhere. It’s very stark and open and beautiful in its own way.”

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