Sacred trees line the route to Olympic downhill gold medal

Pyeongchang Olympics Downhill Courses_717629

FILE – In this Feb. 6, 2016, file photo, winner Kjetil Jansrud of Norway celebrates after his run during a men’s World Cup downhill race, also a test event of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre in Jeongseon, South Korea. The most prized Olympic titles in Alpine skiing will be won […]

The most prized Olympic titles in Alpine skiing will be won this month on downhill courses raced only once before, and lined with trees that are sacred as symbols of fertility.

Only after the South Korean region was picked as host in 2011 were the wide speed tracks in Jeongseon cut through the forest. The mountain is now a pure competition venue for the Pyeongchang Games rather than a hub for ski tourism.

The best downhillers have each had only one World Cup race – in February 2016 for the men, last March for the women – to fully test the jumps and terrain in cold air sweeping down from Siberia.

”I think it’s very unique,” said 2010 Olympic champion Lindsey Vonn, who was runner-up in the women’s test race. ”There are a lot of elements on the Olympic track that aren’t on any World Cup (course).”

All the Olympic speed races will be run in Jeongseon, with practice runs starting Thursday for the men’s downhill race on Sunday. The women race on Feb. 21. They will take different routes down to a common finish area at an altitude of only 545 meters (1,788 feet).

Two separate downhill courses had been planned by veteran designer Bernhard Russi, the 1972 Sapporo Olympic champion. He changed direction to protect more of the holy trees.

The men’s course starts at higher altitude – 1,370 meters (4,495 feet), compared to 1,275 meters (4,183 feet) for the women.

It has ”a bit of everything,” said Beat Feuz, the men’s world champion who, like Vonn, arrived in South Korea as favorite to take gold.

”It’s not extremely steep. It has big jumps. It has technical sections. And it also has gliding parts,” added the Swiss racer, who was fifth two years ago in the men’s test race behind winner Kjetil Jansrud of Norway.

A well-balanced course on unfamiliar terrain – it’s now the norm to decide Olympic gold in a marquee event with a tradition of surprise winners.

At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the Rosa Khutor downhill was also created for the games with a single World Cup dress rehearsal. Then, Matthias Mayer of Austria added to the list of men, including American skier Tommy Moe in 1994, whose first career victory made them Olympic downhill champion.

Mayer is a contender to retain his title on a course in Jeongseon that, at 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles), is about 600 meters (1/3 mile) shorter than the Sochi Olympic course. It should take 25 fewer seconds to complete.

”It’s a minute-40, so it’s a sprint,” said Steven Nyman, the American who placed third in the 2016 test downhill but will miss the Olympics because of injury. ”Fight for speed wherever you can. Fight, fight, fight for aerodynamics.”

The women’s winning time shapes up to be just under 1 minute, 40 seconds, like when Sofia Goggia of Italy edged Vonn by only 0.07 for victory last season.

Both courses demand technical skills to maintain speed around sweeping turns and across traverses, before soaring off a long jump down the final slope.

”There’s also some interesting side hills on the bottom,” Vonn said, ”and then the finish jump is big, very similar to the Vancouver downhill in 2010.”

Vonn also sees some similarities with Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, where she has won the storied women’s downhill six times.

Two World Cup venues with similar dry snow are comparable to the men’s Olympic course. Both of them have suited Jansrud and Norwegian teammate Aksel Lund Svindal.

”A little like Kvitfjell, maybe the last part of Beaver Creek with the high jumps,” said Didier Defago, the International Ski Federation’s test racer on the Olympic course.

Defago took downhill gold in 2010, joined by Svindal and Bode Miller on the medal podium.

”Maybe it’s a short downhill,” Defago added, ”but it can be an attractive downhill.”

Associated Press writer Eric Willemsen in Bad Kleinkircheim, Austria, contributed to this report.

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