It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know who first tied wooden boards to their feet to travel over snow, since the sport may have been invented more than 5,000 years ago. In the frozen northern countries of Norway, Finland and Sweden, skis were especially useful for hunting in the snowy fields and woods. This became what we now call cross-country skiing. Alpine (or downhill) skiing didn’t really catch on until ski lifts became available—not many people were willing to climb up a mountain with all that heavy gear. The first downhill competition was held in Norway in the 1850s, and over the next few decades, the sport spread to the rest of Europe and then to the United States. Franz Pfnur and Christi Cranz, both of Germany, were the first alpine skiing Olympic gold medal winners in 1936.
These are the events held in most present-day alpine competitions:
Downhill features the longest course and is the fastest of the alpine events. Skiers can reach speeds of more than 90 miles per hour as they race down the slope. Downhill racing includes turns, jumps and gliding stages.
In the slalom, the shortest race, single poles, called gates, are placed closely together on the course. It’s the most technically challenging event as skiers speed down the hill making quick, sharp turns through the gates.
On a giant slalom course, gates span the length of the run. They are spaced more widely apart than the slalom gates. This makes for a faster run with wider turns than slalom. Each gate is made of two poles connected by a piece of fabric.
Super Giant Slalom, the newest Alpine event, was introduced into competitions in 1987. It has a much longer course than either the slalom or giant slalom and the gates are the most widely spaced of the slaloms. Super-GS skiers “tuck” into a low, scrunched position to get the most speed from their run.