Slalom and giant slalom are the two technical events of alpine ski racing. Both of these events demand precise ski control to negotiate frequent sharp turns around a series of gates. The two alpine ski races have close to the same number of gates, as many as 75 for men’s races, but the slalom packs them into a much shorter course than the giant slalom.
In both the slalom and the giant slalom, skiers must pass through alternate red and blue gates at high speed. Gates consist of two same-coloured poles which can be oriented either horizontal or vertical relative to the slope. Both skis must pass between the poles. A slalom or giant slalom skier is disqualified for missing a gate or for straddling a gate, which means that only one ski went through the gate and not both.
The slalom course is the shortest of all alpine disciplines, but with a vertical drop of between 140 and 200 metres, it is also quite steep. This also means that it has the quickest turns. Slalom gates are always less than fifteen metres apart. In a flush, which is a series of vertically oriented gates right next to each other, the distance between gates is less than one metre. Men’s courses have between 55 and 75 gates, while women’s courses have between 40 and 60 gates. To prevent premature deterioration of the course by ski edges, slalom courses are often artificially iced, which makes them even faster.
The giant slalom has slightly fewer gates than the slalom, over a longer distance. Men’s courses have between 56 and 70 gates, while women’s courses have between 46 and 58 gates. In the grand slalom, there are no flushes, so each gate is a long, sweeping direction change. The number of direction changes in the giant slalom, as well as for its longer cousin, the super giant slalom (super G), are measured as a percentage of its vertical drop in metres. The vertical drop of a giant slalom course is between 250 to 450 metres (400 metres for women). The number of direction changes is between 11 and 15% of that drop in metres, meaning a minimum of 28 direction changes and a maximum of 67 direction changes (60 for women).
Even the skis used for the two events are different. Slalom skis are shorter and narrower, the better to manoeuvre quickly through gates which are close together without catching a tip on a gate. Giant slalom skis are longer and wider, but still not as long and wide as downhill skis. However, very short skis have been linked to longer recovery time from injury. At Olympic events, no slalom ski is allowed to be shorter than 165 centimetres for men (155 cm for women), and no grand slalom ski is allowed to be shorter than 185 cm for men (180 for women).
Because of the rapid whipback of the gate poles, slalom skiers need more protection than giant slalom skiers. Even Olympic skiers get thwacked by the gate poles. Sarajevo silver medallist Steve Mahre was slapped in the face so hard during his silver medal run that it knocked his goggles askew. Helmets, face guards, hand guards, and shin pads are compulsory.
The extra protective equipment lets slalom skiers physically knock the poles out of the way as they pass, a special technique known as blocking. This is legal in slalom skiing because as long as both skis pass through the gate, it doesn’t matter whether the rest of the skier’s body does. Olympic slalom skiers lean so far into the turn that their body would hit the inside pole if it were not swept aside. Cross-blocking lets a slalom skier follow a tight line through the gates of a flush by sweeping aside the inside pole with the outside hand and then briefly pushing it down further with the inside shin guard. Gates come so quickly together in a slalom course that skiers must always be thinking one gate ahead, so they can change direction the moment their skies have cleared the current gate.
Grand slalom skiers don’t block, because they would lose too much speed by contacting the gate. Instead, they try to get as close to the inside pole as possible without touching it. At most, a grand slalom skier’s shoulder might brush the gate.
Neither slalom nor giant slalom skiers are allowed any practice runs. Instead, a skier will spend hours shadowing the course before a run to plan out his or her route. The fastest line through a slalom course is to stay as close to the inside pole as possible. A grand slalom ideal line is similar but less tight, because it needs to retain as much downhill speed as possible.