New To Ski

Discover the Surprising Differences Between Alpine and Freestyle Skiing

by Travis McCullough | Updated: January 5th, 2023
Alpine Skiing World Cup

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Alpine and freestyle skiing are undeniably the two most popular types of skiing in the world today.  If you were to make a Venn diagram of these two disciplines you would notice a large amount of overlap, but what are the differences that make alpine and freestyle skiing unique?

According to the International Olympic Committee (and just about every other authority in professional skiing), freestyle skiing consists of airborne events, including big air, slopestyle, halfpipe, moguls, ski cross, and aerials, while alpine skiing consists of more traditional racing-styled events such as downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G, parallel, and alpine combined.

Alpine Skiing Events

Alpine Skiing
Photo by specialolympicsusa under CC BY-ND 2.0

Alpine skiing is synonymous with racing, utilizing gates that the skier must maneuver around while keeping up their speed, and athletes are always competing to be the fastest down the mountain.  This type of skiing isn’t judged by style points or amplitude, like freestyle skiing is, but simply by who has the fastest time crossing the finish line.

There are six different types of alpine skiing, five of which are a part of the Winter Olympics, some are considered speed-based events and the others are technical events:

Key Events

EventObjectiveDescription
SlalomTechnicalEvent with two heats and gates that are closer together than in other alpine events.
GiantSlalomTechnicalEvent with more gates than downhill and two runs on different courses.
ParallelTechnicalEvent with two skiers racing against each other on parallel courses.
Super-G (Super-Giant Slalom)SpeedEvent with more gates than downhill but fewer than slalom or giant slalom, and more vertical drop than slalom and giant slalom courses.
DownhillSpeedEvent with skiers reaching speeds of over 100 mph and hitting jumps.
Alpine CombinedSpeed & TechnicalEvent with one run of downhill and one run of slalom, with the lowest combined time winning.

While all alpine skiing events require both speed and technicality to win, the technical events generally contain more gates that are closer together, forcing athletes to throttle their speed in order to successfully ski around gates without getting disqualified.

Slalom

Slalom

Slalom is the most popular technical alpine skiing event because it requires skiers to clear the gates directly in front of them instead of around them, like in giant slalom or super-G events. It consists of two heats, where the skier’s times are combined to determine their placement.

Combine this with the fact that gates are much closer together, which demands that athletes be able to switch from edge to edge very quickly and precisely while blasting through gates head first, and it’s not hard to see why slalom is considered the most technical alpine event.

Giant Slalom

Giant Slalom

Giant slalom is one of the most popular technical events because it requires the most speed.  Compared to other speed events, like downhill and super-G, giant slalom has more gates and is comprised of two runs.

What makes giant slalom so unique, similar to slalom, is that each heat takes place on a different course, and the times from each of the skier’s runs are combined.  A skier’s second run takes place on a course that mirrors the beginning of the first course, requiring athletes to feel comfortable making high-speed turns in both directions.

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downhill-skiing

Downhill

Downhill skiing is another speed event and is probably what most people picture when they envision a ski race.  Skiers frequently reach speeds of over 100 mph, which is why this is one of the most popular alpine events.

Skiing at these extreme speeds while hitting jumps and managing to not lose an edge, make downhill skiing one of the most impressive events on snow.  Outside of practice runs, downhill events usually consist of just one round, enticing athletes to push their speed to record highs.

Downhill courses tend to be longer, have more vertical drop, and require fewer turns than other alpine courses.  It’s not hard to see why downhill is considered the least technical speed event, focusing primarily on top speed.

Super-G (Super-Giant Slalom)

Super-G is a speed event that combines the speed of a downhill course with the technicality of slalom and giant slalom.  Courses have more gates than downhill but fewer than slalom or giant slalom, combined with more vertical drop than slalom and giant slalom courses.

Super-G is considered slightly more technical than downhill events since the vertical drop is less and the gates are closer together.  Like downhill, this event consists of a single round, forcing skiers to find the sweet spot of speed and technicality in order to clear all of the gates without missing any.

Parallel

parallel ski

Parallel skiing is considered a technical event, and it’s the newest addition to the world of alpine skiing.  Unlike the other types of alpine skiing, this event takes place with two skiers descending uniform runs, side by side.  This is one of the most exciting alpine events because spectators can see who is winning in real-time.

Alpine Combined

This style of alpine skiing is the least common of the six different disciplines.  It consists of two runs, the first being a super-G or downhill heat and the second being a slalom run.  Judges combine the skier’s time from each run to obtain a final score.

This event is so rare because it involves a speed event as well as a technical event.  The majority of professional skiers will focus on one specialization, not both.  This is the only alpine event that is not showcased at the Winter Olympics.

See Also:  Key Difference Between Narrow & Wide Skis? (hardpack vs powder)

Alpine Vs Freestyle Skiing Events

Type of SkiingDescriptionEvents
Alpine SkiingRacing-style events involve maneuvering around gates to achieve the fastest time. Judged solely on speed and not style points. There are six different types of alpine skiing, five of which are a part of the Winter Olympics, some are considered speed-based events and the others are technical events.Slalom (Technical), Giant Slalom (Technical), Parallel (Technical), Super-G (Speed), Downhill (Speed), Alpine Combined (Speed & Technical)
Freestyle SkiingAirborne events judged on style points and amplitude. Freestyle skiing consists of events that involve skiers performing tricks and jumps in the air. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognizes six different freestyle skiing events, all of which involve skiers launching themselves into the air and performing tricks before landing.Big Air, Slopestyle, Halfpipe, Moguls, Ski Cross, Aerials

Freestyle Skiing Events

Compared to alpine skiing, freestyle skiing is much newer to the world of professional skiing.  Like alpine skiing, there are six major disciplines that encompass the sport, but large jumps and technical tricks are the cornerstones of this style of skiing, which is why it is scored much differently than alpine events that primarily revolve around speed.

There are far more types of freestyle skiing out there, like the knuckle huck and ski ballet, but the six events that are featured in the Winter Olympics are:

Key Events

EventDescription
Big AirEvent involving skiers launching themselves off a large jump and performing tricks in the air before landing, judged on amplitude and difficulty of tricks, as well as style and execution.
SlopestyleEvent involving skiers performing tricks on a course with jumps, rails, and other obstacles, judged on difficulty and variety of tricks, as well as style and execution.
HalfpipeEvent involving skiers performing tricks in a halfpipe-shaped course, judged on difficulty and variety of tricks, as well as style and execution.
MogulsEvent involving skiers navigating through a series of bumps on a downhill course, judged on turns, speed, and technique.
Ski CrossEvent involving skiers racing against each other on a course with jumps, rollers, and other obstacles, judged on speed and ability to navigate the course.
AerialsEvent involving skiers launching themselves into the air off a large jump and performing acrobatic tricks before landing, judged on difficulty and execution of tricks, as well as style and control in the air.

All of these events require the skier to get at least some airtime, but events like halfpipe and big air demand that the athlete gets massive air while landing big tricks.

Big Air

big air skiing

This freestyle skiing event is pretty self-explanatory, skiers gain as much speed as possible to hit one large kicker and throw the biggest and most technical trick that they can muster.  Olympic judges score the event based on criteria known as DEAL (Difficulty, Execution, Amplitude, and Landing).

To give you an idea of just how big these skiers go, Ailing Gu won the 2022 Winter Olympic gold medal by landing a double cork 1620!  In layman’s terms, this is an off-axis spin that consists of four and a half 360-degree rotations.

Slopestyle

Julia Marino
Photo by Francisco Seco – United States’s Julia Marino competes during the women’s slopestyle finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou, China.

Slopestyle skiing made its Olympic debut in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, and has quickly become a favorite of freestyle skiers everywhere.  This event requires skiers to perform tricks off of jumps, rails, boxes, quarterpipes, and just about anything else you can imagine.

Skiers adopted this skiing specialization in the late 90s from snowboarders, who adapted the style from skateboarders onto the snow.  The sport closely resembles street skateboarding, where athletes use any obstacle at their disposal in order to perform a trick.

Like most other freestyle Olympic events, slopestyle is scored by using the ADVEP scale (Amplitude, Difficulty, Variety, Execution, and Progression).  Athletes are expected to be able to not only land big tricks cleanly but also creatively incorporate these tricks into unique lines that other skiers haven’t done yet.

It is next to impossible to expect what each new ski season will bring in terms of slopestyle creativity, with athletes constantly pushing the envelope of what was once thought impossible.  To illustrate, American skier, Alex Hall, took home the gold in the 2022 Winter Olympics with this jaw-dropping run.  

Halfpipe

Cypress Halfpipe
Photo by BC Living under CC BY 2.0

Halfpipe is probably the most iconic form of freestyle skiing where athletes launch out of each side of the pipe, performing as many tricks and gaining as much air as possible.  Olympic halfpipes have 22 ft tall walls, and it isn’t uncommon for skiers to gain an extra 20+ feet of air above the coping of the pipe.

In the 2015 Winter X-Games, Joffrey Pollet-Villard broke the world record for most air in a halfpipe, attaining a height of 26’3” above the top of the pipe.  Just to give you an idea of how extreme this event is, he would have fallen over 48’ had he not stuck his landing, and this is why halfpipe is hailed as one of the greatest freestyle skiing events.

Halfpipe is scored using the same rubric (ADVEP) as slopestyle skiing and deductions are based on falls and sketchy landings.

Moguls

Monstrous-moguls

Moguls is the freestyle event that most closely resembles alpine skiing, this is because speed is a factor, unlike other most other freestyle events.  This event is the most diverse of all freestyle skiing styles, combining tricks, air time, and speed to obtain the highest score.  The skier’s score is based on three components:

  • Turns
  • Air
  • Speed

Skiers start at the top of a course that is packed with moguls and two sets of jumps.  Athletes are expected to ski as fast as possible over the bumps, catch air off of the jumps, and flawlessly land tricks until they reach the bottom of the course.

Aerials

Skiing Aerials The Olympics
Photo by Duncan Rawlinson – Duncan. co-licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Aerials are similar to big air in that they involve launching off of large kickers while throwing flips and spins, but the tricks that skiers are allowed to do are limited and the scoring is somewhat different.  Aerial is a stripped-down version of big air that has been a part of the Olympics since 1994.

In aerial events, skiers hit two jumps instead of one, unlike big air, and they are only allowed to do flips and spins, no grabs.  Aerials focus more on the form and technique of the take-off and landing than big air does.

Big air focuses on the technicality and originality of the trick as well as how clean the landing is.  This is similar in aerials, but judges also take into account the height and distance the skier gets off of the kicker.  The scoring is broken down into three categories:

  • Air
  • Form
  • Landing

If you have never witnessed an aerial event, just imagine a big air competition combined with traditional ski jumping or ski flying.

Ski Cross

Ski cross is the freestyle event that most closely resembles alpine skiing events in that the winner is determined by whoever crosses the finish line first.  Unlike other freestyle skiing disciplines, ski cross doesn’t award points for style or creativity, simply speed.

A ski cross track resembles a miniature slopestyle course full of small jumps, moguls, embankments, and other pint-sized obstacles.  Ski cross is different from most alpine racing events because it consists of four skiers racing down the same course simultaneously.

The only rule is that skiers aren’t allowed to make incidental contact, otherwise they are disqualified.  Sounds hectic, doesn’t it?  Well, it is, which is why it is so much fun to watch.

Conclusion

As you can see there are quite a few differences between alpine and freestyle skiing, and there are even more differences between the specific disciplines within each style of skiing.  Regardless of if you are skilled enough to participate in any of these events, be sure to catch them in 2026 at the next Winter Olympics in Italy for a truly entertaining conglomerate of different skiing styles.

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