It is not every day in the Olympics that the field of play of a sport has been strategically devised by the father of one of the event’s best athletes.
In Friday’s men’s super combined, half the racecourse will have been created by Ante Kostelic, father and coach of the three-time Olympic medalist and one of the prerace favorites, Ivica Kostelic of Croatia.
Ante Kostelic must position the slalom course gates within certain distance and other specifications, but on a ski slope that is about 600 yards long, there is plenty of room for a father to set the gates up in a way that he knows will suit his son.
There is nothing new about this practice; it is also employed at World Cup events. But it is one of the quirks of a sometimes whimsical winter sport often devoid of the regimentation of U.S. sports.
The Olympic super combined is one run of downhill in the morning followed by one run of slalom in the afternoon, with the times combined to determine the medal winners. The downhill course, which is far more dangerous, is set by officials from the international ski federation.
But the slalom course is set by coaches selected in a lottery. To get a coach into the course-setting draw, a nation must have a skier ranked in the top 15 of the event.
Ante Kostelic, known for setting challenging and sometimes peculiar courses, was chosen for Friday’s slalom course. By Thursday morning, the course was in place here, and it features some potentially dicey elements at the beginning of the final pitch of the slalom hill. The course also concludes with a series of almost dead straight gates, which is unusual for a high-level slalom and will almost certainly ensure a breakneck dash by the racers.
The course setting policy may not be as much of an advantage as it might seem, and just as easily, a U.S. ski team coach could have been chosen to set the slalom. The American Ted Ligety is another favorite in the race. Federation officials do review the course setup and can amend it if they deem it unskiable, unsafe or unfair. But generally, if the course design is merely idiosyncratic, it remains as arranged.
And Ivica Kostelic, 34, does not need a lot of help. He has been one of the best slalom skiers in the world for a dozen years. He seems poised to make a run at his fourth Olympic medal. He won the silver medal in the combined in 2006, when the event was one run of downhill and two runs of slalom, and was second in the current super combined format in 2010. He also won a silver medal in the 2010 slalom.
Kostelic appeared confident after Wednesday’s super combined training.
“I have good feelings,” he said with a smile.
Ligety, the defending world champion in the combined, did not appear worried when asked about Kostelic’s course set.
“Historically, I’ve done well on his course sets,” Ligety said. “He definitely keeps it interesting.”
Bode Miller, another favorite in the event along with Alexis Pinturault of France, put the focus not on the particulars of the slalom course but on the condition of the downhill course.
Consistent daytime temperatures in the 40s have softened the once icy downhill track, making it more susceptible to ruts and choppy snow - not something racers look forward to at 80 mph.
Concern about the bright midday sun here caused race officials Thursday to move the start of Friday’s event to 10 a.m. from 11 a.m. The earlier starting time could ensure better, harder snow race conditions for the downhill.
“That will help keep the hill in shape,” Miller said of the earlier race start. “You want the most fair conditions.”
Still, as Miller noted, nearly 40 racers are entered, and it will take more than an hour to complete the downhill portion.
“Depending on where you are in the bib draw, the course and snow will change a lot,” Miller said, aware that changing snow conditions translate to variable finish times.
Miller cares about the condition of the downhill course as much as the Kostelics care about the makeup of the slalom course. For Miller to have a chance at an Olympic medal - he is the defending Olympic champion - he has to dominate the downhill and hold on during the slalom run.
“It’s going to be tough because of all the good slalom skiers who will be out there,” said Miller, 36, who has seldom practiced or competed in slalom in the last few years.
And one of those slalom specialists will have a particular interest in his run, since he will be plying his trade on the handiwork of his father.