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Updated on April 18, 2010

Skiing has been practiced for over 4,000 years, but it did not become a popular recreational sport until the 20th century. The two main types of competitive skiing are Alpine and Nordic. Alpine skiing consists of downhill and slalom racing, while Nordic embraces jumping and cross-country events.

Photo by Alan Rainbow
Photo by Alan Rainbow

Skis and Poles

A ski is a long, flat runner turned up at the front end. Skis are made of a variety of materials, including wood, plastic, metal, and combinations of the three. Styles range from long for downhill racing, to heavy for jumping, to light for cross country. Wood skis, for many years the only type, are usually available in the lower price ranges. Metal and plastic skis have increased greatly in popularity as improved production methods have brought price reductions.

All skis should be cambered, or arched slightly in the middle, so the skier's weight will be distributed evenly when he steps on the skis. Plastic running surfaces reduce friction and increase speed, while metal edges permit good control on turns. Skis must be strong but should also be flexible and resilient. Finally, they must be able to withstand great variations in climate.

For ordinary skiers, all-purpose skis are suitable for most types of slopes and snow conditions. A common rule for ski lengths has been the distance between the ground and the skier's hand raised above his head but many instructors recommend shorter skis for beginners. For experts and professionals, skis vary to meet the needs of a particular event. Downhill skis are longer and heavier than slalom skis, which are used for turning quickly. Cross-country skis, even lighter, and narrower, are usually made of wood. Different waxes are used for different snow conditions. Jumping skis are long, wide, and heavy.

Two poles are used, with light metal, such as an aluminum alloy, the most popular construction, although steel and fiber glass poles are not uncommon. The tip of a pole is sharp, and about 5 inches (13 cm) above it is a circular ring, interlaced with webbing. The ring and webbing prevent the pole from sinking into deep snow. At the top of the pole is a thong that fits around the wrist, so that the pole will not be dropped. Poles are an aid in climbing and pushing off, and sometimes help maintain balance. Downhill poles are shorter than the cross-country variety. Those for the average skier reach midway between the waist and armpit.

Downhill poles are most often made of lightweight steel or aluminum tubing, and cross-country poles of bamboo. Ski jumpers do not use poles.

Ski Boots, Bindings, and Other Equipment

Advances in plastic techniques have revolutionized ski-boot construction since the late 1960's. Rigid, waterproof plastic boots, often with some leather parts, quickly surpassed all-leather boots in popularity. Double boots, consisting of a rigid outer boot and a more flexible inner one, are also available. Modern boots are fastened with buckles, which have almost completely replaced the traditional laced boots. Flexible, soft-leather boots are still preferred for cross-country skiing.

Until the 1950's, the only purpose of ski bindings was to hold the skier's feet firmly on the skis. However, injuries from falls were frequent, and designers developed several bindings that would release the feet in a fall and still provide good contact while skiing. Modern cross-country bindings hold the feet only at the toes. For Alpine skiing step-in bindings have practically replaced earlier release bindings that used cables. Safety straps, attached to the binding and the boot, are often used to prevent skis from "running away" when the boots are released from the bindings.

Ski clothing should be warm, lightweight, wind-resistant, and as moisture-proof as possible. Sunglasses and goggles help prevent eyestrain and protect the skier from ultraviolet rays. Various types of packs, in which to carry food, extra equipment, and clothing, are widely used.

Ski clothing is designed for maximum warmth with minimum weight. It usually consists of thermal underwear and socks, nylon-and-wool stretch pants, T-shirt, sweater, insulated parka, goggles, hat or headband, and gloves or mittens. Cross-country skiers generally wear less clothing and use knee breeches and long wool hose for freedom of movement.

Competition Skiing

Competitive events are held in both Alpine and Nordic skiing. Alpine racing is divided into downhill, slalom, and giant slalom racing.

Nordic events include cross-country racing and ski jumping. They are organized by the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS), which was founded in 1924. The national organizing body in the United States is the U.S. Ski Association (USSA). The full range of ski competition is held every four years at the winter Olympics. The FIS world championships are also held every four years, midway between the Olympic Games.

Downhill Races. A downhill course is a prepared run having at least a 2,500-foot vertical drop to qualify for FIS recognition. The racer may choose his own line of descent, although occasional control gates, safety devices through which the racer must ski, may be set where necessary.

Slalom. The slalom course is much shorter than the downhill course and consists of a tightly winding corridor of gates, any of which may be entered from either side. The event stresses maneuverability rather than outright speed.

Giant Slalom. The course is similar to a slalom course but is longer and has gates set farther apart. Some sections of the course are without gates, as in a downhill course, and the event is really a combination of slalom and downhill.

Cross-country Races. Cross-country courses range from 5 to 50 kilometers. To meet FIS requirements, the course must start and finish at the same point. Cross-country events include individual and team relay races.

Jumping. A ski jump consists of a ramp, or in-run, with an upturned lip and a gently sloping out-run on solid ground beneath it. Jumping is judged on a combination of the skier's form and the distance that he covers in the air.


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