Five-Ring Circus

Speed Skiing Is the Fastest Non-Motorized Sport on Earth. Why Isn’t It in the Olympics?

Italian Simone Origone competes in the men FIS Speed Skiing World Championships on Jan. 22, 2009.

Photo by Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

Austrian skier Matthias Mayer, the gold medalist in Sunday’s men’s downhill, has a lot to be proud of. Not only did he beat out a field of better-known competitors, he did so on a slope that might be the fastest and most dangerous in the history of the Olympics downhill event. American skier Bode Miller, who finished in eighth place after dominating the training runs, told the press yesterday that “if you are not totally focused and paying attention, this course can kill you.” BBC Sport presenter Graham Bell, a five-time Olympian, would agree with Miller: He recently filmed himself skiing the course, and in the video he sounds utterly terrified as he makes his way downhill. “Wow. Wow! That … is one of the most testing Olympic downhill courses I have ever skied,” he says at the end, before presumably putting in a request for a transfer to the curling beat.

The Winter Olympics have trended in recent years toward speed and danger. Faster, riskier sports play well on television, and theoretically help pique the interest of the coveted X Games demographic. This is why we’ve seen lots of new “extreme” events like skeleton racing and slopestyle snowboarding. Given this emphasis on adrenaline, then, it’s sort of surprising that Olympic officials have shown so little interest in the fastest, craziest winter sport of them all: speed skiing.

Speed skiing makes the downhill look like ice fishing. In a speed-skiing race, athletes tuck and hurtle straight down a smooth, steep kilometer-long course, competing to log the highest speed within the 100-meter “timing zone.” It’s been called the fastest non-motorized sport in the world, and it’s probably an accurate description. (There’s also speed skydiving, which I do not consider a sport. We’ve got to have standards, people!) Skiers regularly exceed speeds of 120 miles per hour, while the fastest recorded speed-skiing time was set by an Italian racer named Simone Origone, who was clocked doing 156.2 mph in 2006.

Speed skiing is sanctioned by the International Ski Federation, the same body that governs the downhill, cross-country, ski jumping, and other more socially acceptable disciplines. Regulations require a back protector “to protect against both frictional burning and mechanical injury,” and “metallic bracelets, watches, chain bracelets, large earrings, etc.” are banned “for safety reasons.” Probably makes sense.

Simone Origone and his brother Ivan are the current leaders in the World Cup standings. This Red Bull video, titled “Fastest Men in the World,” reveals that they are “crazy guys.”

Why aren’t the Origones and their speed-skiing comrades in the Olympics? The most popular explanation is that this is where the International Olympic Committee draws the line—that speed skiing is the sport that’s just too dangerous for Olympic competition. Though speed-skiing courses are smooth and straightforward, which helps reduce the risk of accidents, the hellacious speeds mean that when they do fall, they fall hard. Canadian speed skier John Dormer once compared the sport to plunging down an elevator shaft. “You’re falling and there’s cable and metal and crap all over the place,” said Dormer. “If you bounce against a wall, it will be a mess.” In an essay titled “In Pursuit of Pure Speed,” Dick Dorworth wrote about the 1965 death of the Italian speed skier Walter Mussner—an event Dorworth witnessed firsthand:

With incredible force and speed he went end over end, feet and then head hitting the snow, and each turn wrenching his body unbelievably. Afterwards, eleven holes were counted in the snow, feet, head, feet, head, feet, head, and, at the end, everything. It was difficult to believe it was a human body undergoing such gyrations, such speed, such force. The only thing I have ever seen like it were movies of Bill Vukovich’s car at Indianapolis when he was killed in 1955. It was similar to that.

Speed skiing was a demonstration sport at the 1992 Albertville Games. During that demonstration, French speed skier Nicholas Bochatay died after crashing into a grooming machine during a practice run. That was apparently all the International Olympic Committee needed to know about speed skiing, and the sport hasn’t been seen at an Olympics since then.

But perhaps just as important in the IOC’s calculations is that speed skiing is dangerous and not very exciting to watch. The existing Olympic snow events all give the athletes opportunities to navigate turns, land jumps, or perform tricks—to demonstrate flair and athletic ability. But there’s no room for flair in speed skiing. (And, some would say, the sport doesn’t require much athletic ability, either.) Speed skiers just go downhill in a straight line, with the only deviations coming when they crash and maim themselves. The modern Olympics love danger, but only when it involves hairpin turns and telegenic flips. And that’s probably the biggest reason why speed skiing won’t be back at the Olympics anytime soon.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.