Carving a 200-million-dollar downhill piste worthy of hosting a showpiece Olympic race through an ancient South Korean forest — just another day in the life of Bernhard Russi. With two deaths on the elite racing circuit this season and concerns over the environmental damage caused by the purpose-built Jeongseon piste, it is fair to say the course designer had his hands full in the build-up to the Winter Games in South Korea. The 69-year-old “piste architect” has been creating courses for the International Ski Federation since 1980, having won gold and silver for Switzerland in the Olympic downhills in 1972 and 1976.
With safety very much in the spotlight when the Pyeongchang Games open on Friday, Russi — who had the help of an American cattle rancher — is keen to stress that alpine skiing will never be free from danger.
“At the end of the day it’s the course of the track that throws up more or fewer risks,” Russi said in an interview.
Ski racers often speak to Russi to express their opinions on his courses — and associated danger.
“I’m very happy the racers speak quite often to me about risk levels because we are dependent on the racers’ sense of responsibility,” he said.
“That means it’s the racer who must understand what he does, what he dares to do or not.”
The speed on the Jeongseon course can be increased or slowed, depending on demands and weather conditions, Russi said.
“For the first test, we erred on the safe side, less quick, shorter jumps,” he acknowledged, with World Cup races having been staged there in the two past seasons.
“We approach the maximum potential of the mountain step-by-step. We don’t do it straight from the off.”
Russi insisted that “speed is not everything”, even though racers could average 105 km per hour (65 mph), with hair-raising top speeds of around 130km/h.
“The most important aspects are the technical parts, the trickier parts that challenge the world’s best skiers.”
Help from a cowboy
Russi is aided by an unlikely figure in Tommy Johnston, who farms in Wyoming for half the year but also happens to be one of the world’s leading snow surface experts.
“You just go as hard as you can and look at every little spot that isn’t perfect,” Johnston told The Washington Post.
“My hayfields are the same way — I want them to be perfect.”
The Jeongseon course is very compact and icy, with hardpacked manmade snow, something that will tick Johnston’s boxes.
“I don’t like natural snow. You can’t control it,” he said.
“You have to build a course that’s durable. You have to guarantee the product. If it falls apart, then they hate you. But they seem to hate you less if it’s icy.”
The piste, located in one of the most remote parts of South Korea, has been controversial.
The race course design was adjusted several times to “maintain natural environment and geographical features of the mountain and minimise impact to the area”, according to organisers.
All the same, tens of hectares of forest considered sacred by locals due to the ginseng once harvested for the 15th century Chosun dynasty have been stripped off Mount Gariwang to make way for the piste.
Russi argued that his ex-racer’s eye made for a more sympathetic take on restructuring.
“Where ground or road works had to be carried out, it was previously engineers who took care of it, but they didn’t really know the mountain or come from a competition background,” he said.
“The downhill is the discipline which has an affair with the mountain, with the landscape.
“It’s the landscape which gives you the downhill course.” — AFP