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Olympics: Alpine skiing showcases speed and thrills

Lindsey Vonn of the U.S. competes for a gold medal in the upcoming Olympics, which start Friday

Stefan Brending/WikiMediaCommons

Lindsey Vonn of the U.S. competes for a gold medal in the upcoming Olympics, which start Friday

GENEVA (AP) – Alpine skiing is fast and dangerous and offers must-see races at the Pyeongchang Games, which open Friday and close Feb. 25.

The downhills – ski racing's equivalent to track and field's 100-meter dash – and American star Mikaela Shiffrin's slalom title defense are all scheduled in prime time for U.S. TV audiences.

A primer on a sport that's been part of the Winter Olympics since 1936:

DOWNHILL

A simple concept: Find the fastest route down the mountain. The elite racers cover the men's course of 1 ¾ miles – the women's course is a little shorter – in about 1 minute, 40 seconds, while dropping 2,700 feet in altitude.

Two years ago, Kjetil Jansrud of Norway averaged more than 60 mph while winning by 0.20 seconds – a solid winning margin.

In the women's test race last year, Sofia Goggia of Italy beat Lindsey Vonn of the U.S. on a slightly different course setting.

Vonn will be favored to regain the title she won in 2010 and couldn't defend four years ago because of knee surgery. The men's downhill frequently serves up a surprise, but world champion Beat Feuz of Switzerland and 2010 silver medalist Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway will be popular picks.

SUPER-G

The super-giant slalom, also known as super-G, is the second speed event. It is raced on a slightly shorter, twistier course that is more unpredictable than the downhill.

The skiers never get a chance to practice on the exact set of gates designed by a national team coach who is chosen by random lottery. Instead, skiers only inspect the course beforehand.

GIANT SLALOM

Giant slalom, also called GS, requires sweeping turns through gates more than 30 feet (at least 10 meters) apart. Times from two runs are combined.

The men's race could be another duel between Marcel Hirscher of Austria and Henrik Kristofferen of Norway, while Shiffrin and world champion Tessa Worley of France are the women's favorites.

SLALOM

In the slalom, athletes use shorter skis than in other events to weave through about 60 close-set gates in less than a minute. The 30 fastest racers start in reverse order for the second run.

Slalom needs the iciest racing surface, and can run in falling snow and fog that would make the downhill or super-G speed races unsafe.

COMBINED

Enjoy Alpine combined while you can. This might be the Olympic swan song for an event that combines the times from one downhill run and one slalom.

Jansrud and Alexis Pinturault of France should contend. Swiss slalom specialist Wendy Holdener is world champion in an event that could be the tightest race between Shiffrin and Vonn.

TEAM EVENT

Making its Olympic debut, the Alpine team event puts parallel racing in the Olympics. It is unlike any of the other 10 medal races, which are all individual events. This one has a 16-nation bracket; each team has two men and two women. There are a total of four 1-on-1 runs down a giant slalom course; each should take about 25 seconds. If after two men's races and two women's races, the countries are at 2-all, the tiebreaker is the best combined time of each country's fastest man and woman.