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15 Dec 2017
PyeongChang 2018 , Alpine Skiing , Olympic News
PyeongChang 2018

“Draw me a ski run”: Bernhard Russi tells his story

Bernhard Russi has devoted his whole life to his passion: skiing, and particularly the downhill. First as a champion, with world and Olympic golds in the 1970s, then since 1988 as a designer of Olympic ski runs, including the downhill course in PyeongChang, host of the upcoming Olympic Winter Games. The Olympic Museum in Lausanne is giving you the chance to hear his story as told by the man himself.

“I was born in Andermatt, which means in the mountains, in winter, in the snow; and my parents always told me that I could ski before I could walk. I did my apprenticeship here in the canton of Uri, and then I decided to try to become a professional skier, which is what I did until the age of 30. After that, I ended up working as what is known as a ‘course architect’.” This is how Bernhard Russi describes himself, the man who designs and sometimes actually creates the downhill courses at the Olympic Winter Games. 

World champion, Olympic champion

On 15 February 1970, the 22-year-old Russi, who was competing in his first big international race, won on the Sasslong in Val Gardena, beating all the favourites to become world downhill champion. After that, he quickly got used to podium finishes, sharing the honours with other legends of the sport, like Austria’s Franz Klammer. In the midst of his 28 podium finishes and 10 World Cup victories, he won the gold medal at the Winter Games in Sapporo in 1972, and came second behind Klammer at the 1976 Games in Innsbruck, always in the downhill. 
“My best memory of Sapporo is not when I’d crossed the finish line, or when I was surrounded by crowds of people; it’s when I was alone again for the first time in my bedroom; and that was when I realised what had happened,” he explains. “The second time in Innsbruck, I had bib number three. I produced the best time so I could wait and watch the show. I loved that – it was fantastic. I didn’t lose the gold, I won the silver!”  His final podium finish came in Cortina d’Ampezzo at Christmas in 1977, and Bernhard Russi then retired from competition at the end of the season. But he did not leave his passion behind. 

The Olympic course architect 

“Already when I was a skier, I liked to complain as all athletes do, saying what was wrong and how to do better. One time after I’d ended my career, FIS President Marc Hodler called me and asked me to go to Calgary for him to produce a report on the runs they wanted to create for the Winter Games in 1988. When I came back, I told him: ‘The course is good, but...’ And I think it was this ‘but’ that made me become a course architect. The ‘but’ meant ‘I think the mountain is pretty good, but a number of things do need changing.’ His answer was: ‘Show us what you thought!’”
Bernhard Russi thus became a licensed designer of Olympic downhill courses. Sometimes in an untouched landscape: helicopter flights over the mountain, topographical details in his hands, then with skis on, to choose the right slope where the champions will shine, like at Kvitfjell to create the Olympiabakken, the downhill course for the Olympic Games Lillehammer 1994, used every year since then for the World Cup; or more recently in Jeongseon, to design the downhill course for the  PyeongChang 2018 Games. Sometimes also creating the perfect line on existing runs, like the Face de Bellevarde in Val d’Isère, the spectacular showcase for the Winter Games in Albertville in 1992; the Grizzly at Snowbasin on which the downhill at the Salt Lake City 2002 Games was contested; or the Banchetta in Sestriere for Turin in 2006.  

Designing the Jeongseon course

“I have to go to the mountain and listen to what it’s telling me. I have to understand the nature, the character of the environment, so I can’t go there with preconceived ideas. I have to study the mountain and try to strike a balance with the difficulties we are looking for and don’t want to get rid of. If I leave the difficulties, that means less work; it costs less and it’s safer, as the course setter has to create areas to brake, which make the run less dangerous. In fact, my personal goal when I start designing a downhill course is to give the world’s best skiers the chance to show what they can do.” 
Getty Images
So the process of creating the Jeongseon run goes back to the early 1990s. Bernhard Russi chose the right spot, and walked all the unexplored terrain, with a detailed map in his hands. And if there is one piece of advice he will give the champions looking to win at PyeongChang 2018, it will be this: “You’ll need to like the air more than the snow. That means that, if I add together the length of all the jumps, the skiers will be in the air for more than 300 metres, which is 10 per cent of the whole run!” 

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