Populous Magazine 03: Blind Skiing

From the archive: Issue 03, 2010

Frightened by black ski runs? What about speeding down them blind? All in a day’s work for the visually impaired Paralympic skiers, as Alf Alderson discovers.

Imagine standing at the summit of a black run, psyching yourself up to ski down the slope at top speed. Then someone wraps a blindfold around your eyes and orders you to go.

It’s a fair bet that 99.9 per cent of skiers would dismiss the whole concept as sheer madness. But for visually impaired winter athletes such as Slovakia’s Jakub Krako, this is what they go through every time they hit the slopes.

20-year-old Jakub won three gold medals and one silver in downhill and slalom events at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, blasting down the slopes at speeds of up to 60 mph without being able to see more than two metres ahead of him, and with restricted peripheral vision. One of his eyes is totally blind. What would fill the rest of us with abject terror, Jakub describes as exhilarating. “I feel free when I’m on skis, not frightened.”

This sensation of freedom and speed is what it’s all about for visually impaired skiers – just like any other skier, really. As former Paralympic champion Brian Santos says: “Skiing is one of the rare opportunities which allows the blind individual to move freely at speed through time and space, and experience the sheer exhilaration in a physically independent setting.”

Jakub, who is a university student in Bratislava, has been visually impaired since birth, and like all ‘blind’ skiers is assisted in his high-speed exploits by a guide who skis a couple of metres ahead of him with a radio headset. “My guide tells me when I should make turns, he tells me to be ready to jump. He gives me directions, basically,” Jakub explains. “Yes, he’s a very good skier, too.”

I figure that if you can’t see it, you can’t be scared of it.

Kevin Alderton / Blind skier, world speed-skiing record-holder.

Alpine skiing events for visually impaired skiers have been held since the 1970s, the same decade the Winter Paralympics first started. Competitions are divided into three categories, depending on the level of impairment. The one factor all categories have in common is that it’s skiing as a team, with skier and guide racing down the mountain in perfect harmony.

And if you think this is some kind of slow-motion version of sighted skiing, you’d be gravely mistaken. Visually impaired Paralympians race on the same steep and demanding courses as their Olympic counterparts, and they display levels of commitment, edge control and turning skills that few sighted recreational skiers can match.

But even this is not enough of a challenge for some of them. Take Britain’s Kevin Alderton, a 39-year-old former soldier who holds the world speed record for a blind skier – 162kph, a fraction over 100mph.

After being attacked by thugs on the streets of London a few years ago, Kevin has only four per cent vision. But that hasn’t stopped him throwing himself down the

‘Flying Kilometre’ speed-skiing course in the French Alpine resort of Les Arcs. This course has the gradient of the steepest of black runs; so steep that, if you fall, you don’t stop until you’ve rolled all the way to the bottom. Something which happened to Kevin just after he’d broken the world record. Think about it: you’re skiing blind at around 100mph, you make a minor error of judgement, and in an instant you’re thrown down the slope like a snowball, at the mercy of good fortune.

Kevin says he simply followed advice he’d been given beforehand. He jettisoned his skis and poles, and tried to keep as little of his body as possible on the snow, in order to reduce friction burns. “It was all quite surreal and seemed to be in slow motion,” he remembers.

What about the added terror of not being able to see anything? “I figure that if you can’t see it, you can’t be scared of it,” he says stoically.

Blind alpine skiing is just one of many competitive sports for the visually impaired. The International Blind Sport Federation, founded in 1981, also organises regular events in athletics, archery, bowling, futsal (indoor football), goalball (a type of handball), judo, Nordic skiing, powerlifting, showdown (similar to table tennis), shooting, swimming, tandem cycling and torball (another type of handball). Other organisations offer baseball, chess, cricket, equestrianism, golf, sailing, rowing and water-skiing.

Populous has been appointed lead architect and masterplanner for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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