Emma’s Blog: Alpine ski racing and the four disciplines – what’s it all about?

Emma Carrick-Anderson

Emma Carrick-Anderson

Emma Carrick-Anderson has represented Great Britain at the Winter Olympics on four occasions and is a top-qualified BASI Trainer, so it’s fair to say that she know a thing or two about ski racing! In this new series of blogs, Emma will be sharing her knowledge of ski racing, dishing up everything you need to know before the Britain’s best skiers head to Sochi in February 2013.

Yet another incredible few summer months of sport have passed with Andy Murray’s incredible Wimbledon win and Chris Froome winning the gruelling Tour de France. The summer is most certainly not over but our minds will soon start to wander to colder climates and the next major event, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

As an ex-Olympic Alpine Ski Racer, my focus as a commentator for the BBC during Sochi 2014 will be mainly on the Alpine disciplines and I’ve often thought that unless you are an avid follower of ski racing, the various disciplines must be a little baffling to say the least. I thought I’d try to explain them so that when you tune into the BBC or Eurosport next February you’ll find this great sport easier to follow.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of each discipline, I would like to point out that both Slalom and Giant Slalom consist of two timed runs and the winner is the racer with the fastest combined times. For the second run, the fastest 30 racers go in reverse order so the last person down the course is the leader from the first run. The speed disciplines, Downhill and Super G both consist of just one run.


Slalom ski racing

Slalom requires cat-like reflexes and intense concentration

Let’s start with my favorite, the Slalom event. Slalom is the most technical of the disciplines and leaves very little room for error. Although travelling at much slower speeds than the other events, one tiny error in your line can result in a straddle and the end of your race (straddling is when one ski goes on the wrong side of the gate).

Slalom races have an average of 55 turning gates for Ladies and 65 for Men and these gates are placed between 6m and 13m apart. There is a single pole to go round but to the untrained eye, the Slalom course can look just like a jumble of poles! To the racer, the line through the gates will be engraved on their mind as they have about half an hour to inspect the course prior to competition. During inspection, if you ski any of the gates rather than sliding through them you will be instantly disqualified!

Slalom is made up of simple corridors of gates, hairpins, ‘verticales’ and ‘undergates’ which are all rhythm changes and can often be where races are won or lost.  This really is an absolute all or nothing discipline where an inch on the wrong line can result in a straddle – the Slalom skiers worst nightmare!

Giant Slalom (GS)

The Giant Slalom is in my view the most difficult discipline to succeed in, but it’s also the most beautiful to watch and ski. The timing and co-ordination of movements between the double gates (with flags between the 2 poles) has got to be perfect and the sensation of skiing GS well is like no other feeling.

The vertical drop at between 300-400m is almost double the drop of the Slalom and there are less gates so the course setter aims to set the gates about 24-28m apart. The setter will use the terrain as they wish, often setting tricky gates on exits of steep sections so the racer needs to adjust their line accordingly to keep their speed up.

Look out for undergates which are set to challenge racers, changing their rhythm as the racer has to hold onto the turn for much longer. These are often set over rollers, onto steep sections or just before flats and races are often won or lost in these sections.

Super Giant Slalom (Super G)

Downhill ski racing

Speed disciplines (Downhill and Super G) require strong legs and steady nerves!

The Super G is basically a very fast GS! The toughest part of Super G is that you have only 45 minutes to inspect the course and will often be travelling at speeds of up to 80mph over jumps and tackling difficult turns which you have previously only skied whilst on inspection, sliding through the gates at snail’s pace.

Racers have an hour to free ski on the race hill the day before but there are no training runs through the course before the race. This is an incredibly difficult discipline to succeed in and you need a seriously good memory to remember the ideal race line and to navigate your way over jumps and through huge sweeping turns at these speeds!


Finally the Downhill, often referred to as the King discipline of ski racing as racers often reach speeds of 90mph! A French racer actually clocked just over 100mph this year in a Downhill race (Johan Clarey on the Lauberhorn, Wengen at 100.6mph), the fastest ever recorded speed! Three days are scheduled into the program for downhill training and racers must complete at least one training run before the actual competition. As with Super G, the jury will use the yellow flag in Downhill if there has been a crash on the course. If an athlete is ‘yellow flagged’ they must stop instantly and are taken straight back to the top of the race for a re-run.

All four of these great disciplines which will no doubt offer huge entertainment next February. Look out for the differences between the four and especially for the athletes who compete in all of them as they truly are incredibly talented athletes!

SnoworksEmma Carrick-Anderson is a four times Winter Olympic Ski Racer and Great Britain’s most successful alpine slalom skier. Emma runs courses with Snoworks (based in Tignes and Courchevel) that include, All-Terrain, Off-Piste and Race Carve. Emma will be commentating for the BBC during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.




  1. Thanks for that explanation Emma – would you please be able to add diagrams (e.g. of gate (pairs) and typical racing lines) to illustrate the differences between the types of gate layout (i.e. verticales, undergates, etc)?

  2. Great Blog!
    I myself am a ski racer but I can only ski two events, GS and Slalom. I had always thought that Downhill and Super G were the same but now I know the difference. I really liked how you made each different race distinct and pointed out how each one is difficult. My personal favorite is Slalom because it is so rewarding after doing well on a tough run. It also feels good to bash so many gates and I am sure many others feel the same way. Again, well written blog and thanks for the information!

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