Chat with Bernhard Russi: About designing a downhill for major events

For the last thirty years, the 70-year-old Swiss has also worked as course designer, creating the blueprint for most downhill courses at the title events. As the ‘Picasso of snow,’ Russi plays a crucial role in skiing even 37 years after his retirement from racing.

The original downhill course built in Åre in 1984 was already designed by Bernhard Russi. After redesigning the downhill course here in Are for the 2007 World Championships, mostly making it wider to allow more variation in course setting, he’s back in Åre enjoying the events from the sidelines in his role as the Chairman of the FIS Alpine Committee. We met with Bernhard to discuss the future of alpine race course design while watching the competitions in the Swedish National Arena.

Traditionally a ladies' event, will you be involved with the design of the men’s downhill at Cortina 2021?

Bernhard: “No, I’m not involved at all. They have a very competent team with many people taking care of everything and the plans are already in place. Everything there is going as planned.”

You have designed the downhill for the next Games at Beijing 2022. How is the work advancing?

“We are making good progress and are about 50-60% done.We expect the earth work to be completed next summer and then it will be all about working with the snow. The collaboration with the local authorities there is very good.”

Recently you have been working with a fellow retired Swiss Olympic downhill champion Didier Defago in your course design work. How is that relationship and collaboration going?

“We work very well together and have the same philosophy on how to design a competitive and interesting race course that challenges the athletes. We have been in Beijing together at every step and Didier is playing an important role as a design partner. The plan is for him to take over the business eventually depending on how long I will continue to be active.”

How do you see the future of course design? The market asks for ever more entertainment and excitement. Would you welcome bringing elements from other sports like ski cross into downhill racing?

“Yes, I am totally open to such ideas and think that is the future. We are constantly thinking about how to keep the races fresh, exciting and viewer-friendly.Some possibilities to add action into a course include bumps and rough course preparation, as well as jumps. I can imagine that we will incorporate new elements such as banks, rollers, etc. The trick is to continue to challenge the athletes from a technical perspective and limit speed.”

You have said in the past that you support more races to be held at night. How about a shorter downhill with two runs under flood lights?

“Why not illuminating a regular downhill from top to finish?We already have lights up to the super-G start here in Are. We could take the lights all the way to the top, couldn’t we? The one thing I'd love about more night races is the fact that all racers would have great visibility and the discussions around unfair conditions due to flat light like last Saturday could be eliminated. That, in my opinion, would be great for the athletes and the attractivity of the sport overall.”

If Stockholm-Åre 2026 becomes a reality, would you envision a complete redesign of the race tracks here?

“We don’t know what the future of ski racing holds since technology advances so quickly, but at this stage I don’t expect many dramatic changes. The overall vision and philosophy for course design have not changed, nor has the mountain – the goal is to make sure that technical prowess determines the winner, not pure speed. Hence, building in more technical elements into the current course might be the answer.”

Any final words to tje hosts here in Sweden?

[Answers in accent-free Swedish since he’s married to Swedish native Mari Bergström] “Thank you very much for the great organization of these World Championships here in Åre. I wish you continued success and hopefully a happy ending with a Swedish medal or two in the upcoming technical events.”

Are 2019 Press Release

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