It centers around David Chappellet (Redford), a – you guessed it – downhill skier added to the U.S. national ski team after another skier shatters his leg. Self-centered, arrogant, supremely confident of his own abilities and ruthlessly driven to win, Chappellet alienates his teammates and irritates their coach Eugene Claire (Hackman) when he complains about a low placement in a race and then blames his loss on that late placement.
Chappellet rises up in the skiing world. He has a messy affair with Carole (Camilla Sparv), who works for the ski team's sponsor, but otherwise doesn't seem to have much of anything that he likes or is good at, besides skiing... but he's very good at skiing. Eventually it's time for the Winter Olympics, and Chappellet's big showdown with Meier, the Austrian downhill champion.
Michael Ritchie's directorial debut. A young Dabney Coleman appears as Mayo, the ski team's assistant coach. A young Sylvester Stallone makes his film debut as an extra, briefly visible when Chappellet and Carole are having dinner in a restaurant. Three years later Ritchie and Redford collaborated again to make The Candidate.
- And the Adventure Continues: The German who was posting a better time than Chappellet did wipes out, but the brief Held Gaze between them suggests that Chappellet knows the anonymous German is coming for him, just as he came for and eventually surpassed the former champion, Meier.
- Armor-Piercing Question: D.K., another skier who has taken a dislike to Chappellet, complains that he isn't doing anything to help the team. Coach Mayo absorbs this and then answers, "Well, it's not exactly a team sport, is it?"
- Armor-Piercing Response: Chappellet's father is a hardscrabble, taciturn chicken farmer who is utterly unimpressed by his son's skiing adventures. Dad notes that David isn't paid and wonders what he even does it for. When a defensive David says "I'll be a champion," his father sarcastically notes, "World's full of 'em."
- Auto Erotica: Chappellet picks up an old girlfriend in his hometown and, just like that, they're having sex in the back seat of the car. After he gets his rocks off he immediately forgets the girl.
- Big Game: The film ends with Chappellet facing off against Meier in the climactic Olympic downhill slalom.
- Book Ends: In the first scene, a skier crashes, and Chappellet fills his spot on the team. In the last scene, a skier crashes, which wins Chappellet the gold at the Olympics.
- Call-Back: In an early scene everyone is impressed when Chappellet posts a great time in a race despite having a low seed, and thus having to race when the course is cut up by tracks. At the end a low-seeded German surprises everybody by tearing up the course and seems about to beat Chappellet and take the gold, when he wipes out.
- The Cameo: A longtime friend and collaborator of Robert Redford who helped on this film, Natalie Wood, appeared as an extra in some crowd scenes. She was also the wife of producer Richard Gregson.
- Conversation Cut: Right in the middle of Coach Claire's fundraising speech, the film cuts to Claire delivering the same speech in a completely different setting, illustrating how he has to deliver it repeatedly.
- The Faceless: The face of the skier who wipes out and shatters his leg in the opening scene is never shown, even as Claire watches while the skier gets an X-ray.
- The Film of the Book: Adapted from the 1963 novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall.
- Hypocrite: Chappellet is outraged when Carole essentially uses him for sex and then ghosts him. He doesn't seem to consider that he did the exact same thing with his old girlfriend back in Idaho Springs.
- Jerkass: Chappellet picks up an ex-girlfriend, screws her, and immediately ditches her. He whines about hard ice when he puts up a bad time. After he is dissatisfied with a low seed for a race, he simply refuses to participate. He forces his own teammate, Creech, into a wall during a race.
- Mathematician's Answer: Chappellet's roommate introduces himself as "D.K.". When asked what that stands for, he replies, "My name." He steadfastly refuses to reveal what his initials stand for.
- P.O.V. Cam: Impressive POV shots of a skier going downhill at a high rate of speed.
- The Rival: Meier, the German skier who holds the record and sneers at Chappellet the rookie. Chappellet dedicates himself to beating Meier.
- Scenery Porn: Many amazing shots of the snow-covered Alps, with skiers streaking down them.
- Snow Means Love: As it turns out, they aren't really in love, but the snowy slopes certainly set a romantic mood when Chappellet and Carole go skiing together.
- Sudden Soundtrack Stop: At the climax, Chappellet, who thinks he's won gold, is horrified to see an unknown German skier beating his time. The German makes a turn as the crowd roars—and then the soundtrack goes completely mute as the German wipes out, clinching gold for Chappellet.
- "Well Done, Son" Guy: Chappellet tries to impress his father, a taciturn chicken farmer, with his tales of glory on the ski slopes. His father is not at all impressed and in fact is rather contemptuous, which obviously bothers his son a great deal.