By Graham Dunbar
SOCHI, Russia — No one knows Olympic ski courses better than Bernhard Russi, and he likes the ones in the mountains above Sochi.
Alpine skiing’s master architect has been creating and adapting the Russian slopes since 2006. His latest work will begin to be revealed in the marquee men’s downhill race scheduled on Sunday.
“I’m very happy,” Russi, who won downhill gold for Switzerland at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “It’s well balanced in terms of difficulties and in terms of features.”
It is also something of a mystery.
The men’s and women’s courses at the Rosa Khutor resort have each hosted one World Cup meet, totaling only three races on back-to-back weekends in February 2012.
The men’s speed course, though modified slightly after the test races, gave up enough secrets to allow comparison with a more familiar stop on the season-long circuit.
“It’s a little bit like Beaver Creek,” said Russi, who also designed the downhill track in Colorado known as Birds of Prey. “Longer, more space, with these two big jumps at the end.”
United States men’s head coach Sasha Rearick described the Sochi Olympic course as “a great modern downhill, much like Beaver Creek.”
“It’s got every component,” Rearick told the AP. “It’s got huge jumps, it’s got glide sections, it’s got high-speed turns.”
The U.S. team has reason to like the comparison: Bode Miller has twice won the Birds of Prey downhill and Ted Ligety has won his home World Cup giant slalom four times.
Miller also placed fourth in the World Cup downhill in Sochi two years ago, finishing 0.61 seconds behind winner Beat Feuz of Switzerland.
Feuz covered that 3.5-kilometer (2.17-mile) long course in 2 minutes, 14.10 seconds — longer than all on the World Cup circuit except the classic course in Wengen, Switzerland.
It was also icy enough that weekend to injure Feuz, Miller and Ivica Kostelic, the following day’s super-combined winner.
“That was over the top and it was also dangerous once the ice broke,” Rearick recalled. “If they do a good job of watering the hill and grooming it in, I think it’s going to be good.”
Potential downhill favorite Aksel Lund Svindal, who was 13th behind Feuz, is no fan of the ice but said the men’s course must withstand more than two weeks of training and racing.
“They need a hard surface or we could have the issue where it’s a start-number race and no one wants that for the Olympics,” said the big Norwegian, whose three medals at the 2010 Vancouver Games included downhill silver.
Four years ago, downhill training and the medal race were hampered and delayed by rain and warm temperatures.
Russi said snow conditions determine 30 percent of how a course plays, and setting the gates will also be a factor after studying the test events.
“The course setting can be, will be a little bit faster on the top, two to three turns less,” he said. “The first (races) you always control it a little bit more than necessary. You can let it go now.”
The downhill starts at about 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) and drops a further 1,000 meters (3,281 feet). In lower sections, the men’s giant slalom course has had more rolling terrain built into it since 2012.
Ligety pointed to “really important sharp rolls that are going to be tactical, you’re going to have to be smart on.”
“It’s not super technical ever, it doesn’t have any long sustained pitches like you normally see on the World Cup,” Ligety said in Wengen last month. “I think it’s actually a good hill for me.”
The women’s course is on an adjoining slope, sweeping into a shared finish area, and had major changes after a World Cup downhill won by German star Maria Hoefl-Riesch.
A rising approach to a jump in an upper section known as Devil’s Spine sapped so much speed that it was built down, Russi said.
“There weren’t any giveaways on that hill,” recalled Julia Mancuso, who was sixth that day. “A couple steep pitches and a lot of fast gliding and some jumps.”
Russi started work in Sochi in 2006, commissioned to create an elite Alpine resort in Russia with no guarantee of winning the Olympic hosting contest the following year.
“The ski area would have been constructed anyway,” said Russi, who will attend the games in one of his other jobs as a commentator for Switzerland’s German-language state broadcaster.
But he looks back fondly on his work in Rosa Khutor, dating back to the very start.
“There is nobody there. Just you, nature, mountain,” Russi said. “I became a friend of the mountain and then we worked.”
— AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Val Gardena, Italy, contributed to this report.