How Does Slalom Skiing Work?

Slalom skiing is one of the most well-known skiing events in the Olympics, but how does it actually work? Ski Expert Luke Hinz is here to break it down!

A ski racer makes a turn around a gate.

Elite form and even more elite fashion: a slalom racer dressed to the nines. Photo By Martin Rulsch

Like most diehard fans of winter, you probably tuned in to the Beijing Olympics hoping to watch Mikaela Shiffrin pursue world dominance in ski racing. Unfortunately, it didn’t go as planned, even though she is one of the most decorated ski racers of our time. Perhaps you found something even more confusing than Shiffrin’s performance—figuring out slalom skiing.

As a former ski racer, I have to admit the sport looks pretty strange from afar. What are the gates for? What’s with the guards on their poles, shins, and helmets? Why are they hitting the gates like they are angry at them?

In this article, we’ll dive into the dark art known as slalom skiing and give you answers to these questions and more!

The Slalom Discipline

Ski racing is very similar to swimming. Meaning there are multiple disciplines in which athletes compete. Just as swimming has the breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly, and freestyle, skiing has five disciplines: downhill, super-G, giant slalom (sometimes referred to as GS), and slalom.

In each, a series of gates, comprising of two rigid plastic poles running perpendicular to the fall line of the mountain, are spaced far enough apart for a skier to pass between them from the start gate to a finish line. To differentiate between them, the gates alternate in color between red and blue. The racer must break the plane between the poles during their run for the gate to count.

The downhill and super-G are considered speed events as skiers reach 80mph and more. Because of this, the gates are set far apart from each other. Whereas the giant slalom and slalom position the gates closer together, requiring tighter turns at slower speeds.

Giant slalom and slalom are considered more technical because of those tighter turns and the necessary faster reaction times. Slalom, where the gates can be no farther than six meters apart, demands the most technique and agility from a racer. Therefore, it is often considered the most technical skiing discipline.

So what’s the point? Make every gate before you cross the finish line and be the fastest to do so.

The Slalom Course

So what makes a course a slalom course? Logically, a course should be set up with the gates in a linear line from the top of the course to the bottom. But what would be the fun in that? Instead, ski race courses are constructed with the gates in a staggered pattern, requiring tight turns. The graphic below depicts a basic slalom course design and how a hypothetical racer approaches it.

A diagram of the most basic slalom course with a skier’s tracks between the gates.

The most basic slalom course with a skier’s tracks between the gates. Diagram by Luke Hinz

If you’ve watched any slalom racing, you know none of the racers ski like that through the course. Instead of staying wide of the gates, they ski so close to them that they are forced to bash them out of the way violently with their poles. What’s with that?

Well, there is no rule stating that slalom racers have to hit the gates. But remember that the winner is the racer with the fastest time through the course. Here, the fastest point between point A and point B is a straight line.

Ski racers rarely make straight lines and certainly not through a course. But by making their turns as close to the gate as possible, they take the most direct route, shaving precious seconds from their time.

And in a sport where the winners are determined by tenths or even hundredths of a second, every advantage counts. So when you see a slalom racer viciously destroying the gates with their poles, remember it is all in the name of speed. The graphic below shows a faster line through the course.

Diagram of the fastest route from start to finish is the most direct route through the gates, allowing a racer to shave seconds off their time.

The fastest route from start to finish is the most direct route through the gates, allowing a racer to shave seconds off their time. Diagram by Luke Hinz

This also explains why slalom skiers wear armor. Gates are made of very hard plastic and smacking into them at high speed with a hand, shin, or face is quite painful. The hard plastic shin guards, pole guards, and helmet visors protect them from the impact.

When the difference between bringing home the gold or returning empty-handed depends on if you smack a gate or not, most slalom skiers choose the former. And that requires armoring up.

Variables and Alternatives in a Slalom Course

No slalom course looks like the ones depicted above. Course setters have to account for a change in the fall line or a change of direction in the run. Sometimes, they want to make it even more challenging by throwing a wrench into the racers' perfect run. To do this, course setters differentiate between open gates and closed gates.

The gates depicted above are examples of open gates. The plane of the gate runs horizontally across the hill and perpendicular to the fall line. Closed gates are the opposite. The plane of the gate runs vertical and parallel to the fall line.

Examples include the hairpin gate, the delay gate, and the flush. Course setters use such gates to change the flow and rhythm of the course, forcing the racers to adapt on the fly. The graphic below depicts a hairpin gate and the accompanying skier’s tracks.

Diagram of the fastest route from start to finish is the most direct route through the gates, allowing a racer to shave seconds off their time.

The fastest route from start to finish is the most direct route through the gates, allowing a racer to shave seconds off their time. Diagram by Luke Hinz

Course setters sometimes set up two consecutive hairpin gates, which are referred to as a flush. A flush demands a fast response from a competent racer to change their direction and rhythm. The graphic below depicts a flush in use.

Diagram of a flush used to break up the cadence and rhythm of the slalom course.

A flush used to break up the cadence and rhythm of the slalom course. Diagram by Luke Hinz

Though confusing at first glance, if you look closely, you see the closed gates are on the same plane to break as the open gates. It’s simply vertical in the Flush. Because a Flush is often straight down the fall line, it’s where a racer can pick up speed.

But that same speed can be a huge hindrance as you rocket back into more methodical, rhythmic open gates. This is often where you see racers blow out of a course.

The best courses are ones that challenge the racers in unique ways. Racers in the Olympics are the best in the world. And though they make it look easy, they skirt the very edge of what is possible on two skis.

Race Time

In the downhill, racers are allowed practice runs before the competition to feel out the course. This is because downhill racers plummet down the mountain at such blazing speeds that going into a course blind is a major safety hazard.

But the downhill is unique. Super-G, giant slalom, and slalom racers are not allowed a practice run. Instead, they are given a small window just prior to race time to inspect the course and note any potential trouble gates beforehand.

Elite racers memorize as much of the course as possible. Have you seen racers in the start area with their eyes closed and their hands up, mimicking the motions of a ski? They are visualizing their line before the start.

An elite ski racer performing the ritual of ‘visualization’, a fundamental component of the dark art of slalom skiing.

An elite ski racer performing the ritual of ‘visualization’, a fundamental component of the dark art of slalom skiing. Photo By Tobias Seidl

The downhill and super-G are composed of only one run for each racer. But giant slalom and slalom require each racer to take two runs—one each in a different course. The two results are then combined into one. The glory and gold go to the racer with the fastest total time.

The Finish Line

While slalom skiing as a discipline seems perplexing at first glance, it follows the same rules and physics of the other four disciplines of ski racing; albeit in a much faster and more violent package.

While not nearly as fast as the downhill, the frenetic pace and hypnotic rhythm of slalom are equally exciting. So when the next Winter Olympics roll around, you’re now ready to impress everyone with your newfound knowledge of the dark art known as slalom skiing! If you have any other questions regarding skiing or ski gear, reach out to a Ski Expert here on Curated and we are always happy to chat!

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Written By
If my parents could have foreseen how deep my obession for skiing would become, they might never have put me on skis. I've been fortunate enough to experience the entire spectrum of skiing; from growing up racing on icy Midwest slopes, to exploring every nook and cranny of the Wasatch Range backcoun...

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