The alpine architect
Bernhard Russi has devoted his entire life to downhill skiing, first as world and Olympic champion in the 1970s and then, since 1988, as the designer of Olympic downhill courses.
On 15 February 1970, 22-year-old Swiss Bernhard Russi announced his arrival on the big stage in remarkable fashion, outperforming all of the favourites on the piste of Sasslong de Val Gardena to win the World Downhill Championships. That was the prelude for an entire decade at the summit of downhill, where he regularly shared the podium with fellow legends of the era such as Austria’s Franz Klammer. In addition to 28 downhill podium finishes and 10 World Cup victories, Russi won gold at the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo, and then claimed the silver in Innsbruck four years later behind Klammer. Soon after claiming a final podium finish in Cortina d’Ampezzo in December 1977, Russi announced his retirement from competitive skiing, but that was just the start of a new chapter in what has been a lifelong love affair with downhill.
In the 1980s, Russi was commissioned by the International Ski Federation (FIS) to design runs for the Olympic Games. Sometimes this involved venturing into completely virgin territory, which meant first flying over the chosen area in a helicopter, armed with topographical surveys, and then skiing the proposed slope himself, in order to select a route that would bring out the best in the world’s top skiers. At Kvitfjell (NOR), he designed Olympiabakken, the downhill piste for the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, which has been used for every World Cup since. One of his latest creations is the course at the Rosa Khutor alpine resort in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, where he was tasked with developing a new course for use at Sochi 2014. On other occasions, he has been asked to revamp existing pistes, for example the legendary Bellevarde Face at Val d’Isère, which provided the spectacular setting for the downhill competition at the the Albertville Winter Games in 1992, the Grizzly course at Snowbasin for Salt Lake City 2002 and Banchetta in Sestrière at the 2006 Games in Turin.
Russi has often said that designing great ski runs means being able to visualise what is needed to bring the best out of the competitors, as well as being able to understand the characteristics of a mountain in order to utilise its contours to maximum effect. “I respect the sport,” he explained. “Whether I’m working or relaxing, it’s something that I think about every day. At the end of the day, skiing is my whole life!”