Alpine skiing, a history

Skiing is thought to have been around since ancient times as a vital part of life in colder countries, with ski fragments discovered in Russia from 8000-7000 BC. Modern downhill skiing developed in the 1850s and was made popular by Sondre Norheim, from Norway, who won the first national Norwegian skiing competition in 1868. This popularity spread across Europe and the USA with the first slalom event held in Switzerland in 1922 and the first world championships held in 1931, also in Switzerland. The first Olympic alpine skiing event was held in 1936 and events were gradually added over the years.

Para-alpine skiing became increasingly popular when injured servicemen returned from World War II and wanted to continue skiing as a sport. This hailed a systematic development in adapting the sport to cater for those with injuries and the first official documented event for disabled skiers was held in 1948 in Badgastein, Austria, where 17 athletes took part.

Despite the lack of snow in the UK, it was a British man, Arnold Lunn, who first wrote the rules for downhill skiing and who organised the first alpine skiing events in Mürren, Switzerland, in 1931 and 1936. His son, Peter Lunn, went on to captain the British Winter Olympic team in 1936.

Alpine skiing, a Paralympic event

Alpine skiing was part of the first Winter Paralympic Games at Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, in 1976. Athletes competed in slalom and giant slalom and three distances in nordic skiing. Downhill was added to the Paralympic programme in 1984 in Innsbruck, Austria, and super-G was added in 1994 at Lillehammer, Norway. Sit-skiing or mono-skiing, was introduced as a demonstration sport at the Innsbruck 1984 Paralympics and became a medal event at the Nagano 1998 Paralympic Games. The Great Britain team have competed in alpine skiing in every Winter Olympics and Paralympics. Michael Hammond was the first Paralympic athlete to represent the Great Britain team in 1976 in the men’s giant slalom. In 1992, 11 Great Britain Paralympic athletes competed in alpine skiing events, the most athletes the UK has ever entered.

Alpine skiing events at the Winter Paralympic Games

  • 1976 Örnsköldsvik, Sweden - slalom, giant slalom
  • 1980 Geilo, Norway - 22 Para alpine skiing events in slalom and giant slalom 
  • 1984 Innsbruck, Austria – 56 events in downhill, giant slalom, slalom and alpine combination.
  • 1988 Innsbruck, Austria – 44 events across downhill, giant slalom and slalom. Sit-skiing/mono-skiing as a classification.
  • 1992 Tignes/ Albertville, France- 48 events across downhill, super-G, giant slalom and slalom
  • 1994 Lillehammer, Norway – 66 events in downhill, super-G, giant slalom and slalom.
  • 1998 Nagano, Japan – 54 events across downhill, super-G, giant slalom and slalom.
  • 2002 Salt Lake City, USA- 53 events across downhill, super-G, giant slalom and slalom.
  • 2006 Turin, Italy- 24 events across downhill, super-G, giant slalom and slalom (reduction in number of events reflects reduction to only 3 classification categories to compete in: visually impaired, sitting, standing)
  • 2010 Vancouver, Canada – 30 events across downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom and super-combined.
  • 2014 Sochi, Russia- Standing snowboard cross event introduced. 32 events across downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom, super combined and snowboard cross. (All events had 3 classification categories; sitting, standing and visually impaired, except snowboard cross which only had the standing classification category)

British para-alpine skiing medal winners

  • 1984 Innsbruck, Austria
    John Watkins - bronze in men’s alpine combination LW 5/7.
  • 1992 Tignes/ Albertville, France
    Richard Burt - silver in men’s giant slalom B3 and bronze in men’s super-G B3
    Matthew Stockford - bronze in men’s giant slalom LW10, bronze in men’s super-G LW10 and bronze in men’s downhill LW10.
  • 1994 Lillehammer, Norway
    James Barker - bronze in men’s downhill LWXI.
    Richard Burt - bronze in men’s super-G B3 and bronze in men’s giant slalom B3
    Matthew Stockford - bronze in men’s super-G LWX
  • 2014 Sochi, Russia
    Kelly Gallagher and guide Charlotte Evans - gold in women’s visually impaired (VI) super-G (first gold medal for any British alpine skier at either Olympic or Paralympic Games.
    Jade Etherington and guide Caroline Powell - silver in women’s visually impaired (VI) downhill, silver in women’s VI slalom, silver in women’s VI super combined and bronze in women’s VI super-G.

Kelly Gallagher and her Guide Charlotte Evans with the Gold medals, in the Alpine Skiing Super G event, Sochi 2014

Kelly Gallagher and her Guide Charlotte Evans with gold medals in the alpine skiing super-G event, Sochi 2014.  Image credit: Paralympics GB

How Para-alpine skiing has evolved

Since 2006 World Para-alpine skiing has been developing activities and initiatives to increase the amount of people practising the sport with development camps for young skiers with the ultimate goal of increasing participation in the Paralympic Winter Games. Since 2014 World Para Alpine Skiing have also introduced a range of youth races to improve competitive participation.

Technical advances have included the development of sit-skis since the 1960s which have been continually modified to become lighter, easier to manoeuvre and more advanced.

Rules of Para-alpine skiing

There are five disciplines in which Paralympians can compete in alpine skiing; downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G and super combined. Team events have been introduced to Olympic alpine skiing, but not yet to Para-alpine skiing.

Currently there are three classifications in which they can compete (visually impaired, sitting, standing), enabling athletes with different impairments to compete against each other.  A results calculation system takes the different impairments of competing athletes into consideration when calculating the final time of competitors so that those with different impairments can compete fairly in the same category. Skiers in the visual impaired category can be guided through the courses with sighted guides who pass back instructions to the athlete. Equipment can also be adapted to cater for individual needs of athletes, like single-skis or sit-skis.

Downhill

Athletes ski down a steep slope (altitude drop from start to finish from 450-800m), passing through a number of gates during the course. Missing a gate leads to disqualification and final scores are based on times ranked in ascending order.

Slalom

This event is shorter than the downhill event with a shorter vertical drop (140-220m), however a greater number of gates that the athlete has to pass through. Missing a gate leads to disqualification and athletes complete two runs on different courses, with the times from both being added together. Total times are then ranked in ascending order.

Giant slalom

The giant slalom is similar to the slalom but is a longer course with less gates, although the vertical drop is bigger (300-400m). Athletes complete two runs on different courses on the same slope, with times added together to give a total final time. These times are ranked in ascending order to determine the final positions. Like in the slalom event, if an athlete misses a gate they are disqualified.

Super-G

The super-G, like the downhill, is a speed event in which athletes complete one run down the course to achieve the best finishing time. The course is shorter than the downhill but with a number of widely set gates that the athlete has to pass through, forcing them to change direction, like in the slalom.

Super combined

The super combined event requires athletes to complete two runs on two separate courses from either the downhill or super-G and the giant slalom or slalom. The times from both runs are then combined to determine final finishing positions from the ascending order of total times. Most commonly athletes compete in one super-G run and one slalom run.

Governing bodies

British Para-snowsport is recognised as the UK National Governing Body for disabled snowsports by the British Paralympic Association (BPA) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

Regional groups

Disability Snowsport UK has a wealth of information on ski and snowboarding groups around the country that are accessible and cater for those with a disability. Visit their website for more information here.

References

  • www.paralympicheritage.org.uk/parasport-organisations
  • www.olympic.org/alpine-skiing-equipment-and-history
  • snowsportengland.org.uk/find_club
  • www.paralympic.org/alpine-skiing/about
  • www.paralympic.org/alpine-skiing/development 
  • paralympics.org.uk/sports/para-alpine-skiing 
  • www.bbc.co.uk/sport/disability-sport/43184593 
  • www.skiclub.co.uk/info-and-advice/learning-and-development/skiing-with-a-disability