Austria’s Marcel Hirscher wins elusive Olympic gold

JEONGSEON, South Korea — Eventually, The Question began to bother Marcel Hirscher.

It wasn’t so much the actual content, which was always some variation of: “Do you need an Olympic gold medal to validate your otherwise-perfect skiing career?” He was certain he knew the answer: “No.” It was more the incessant echo of it, over and over.

France hadn’t had a had a top-three finish in a men’s Olympic combined race in 70 years, let alone a pair of medals on the same afternoon. Might never happen again, either: There is a movement afoot to drop the combined from the Olympic schedule because International Ski Federation, race organizers and broadcasters instead want more short, TV-friendly parallel racing events where skiers go down the piste two at a time, head-to-head.

How often did Hirscher hear The Question? “Ev-e-ry day,” he said. This was offered with a smile Tuesday, because that line of inquiry will never again arise. As of the Alpine combined event at the Pyeongchang Games, Hirscher is, at long last, an Olympic champion.

So Hirscher went into the downhill merely hoping to be within 3 seconds of the lead going into the slalom; he wound up less than 1½ seconds behind, the beneficiary of catching a lull in swirling winds. The same gusts that had led to the postponement of the first two races on the Alpine schedule. Others found themselves dealing with headwinds or blasts of air that hit them from the side.

The 28-year-old Austrian used a sublime slalom run on an icy course to rise from 12th after the opening downhill in the two-run competition and added that Winter Games triumph to a substantial collection of accolades. He already owned a record six consecutive overall World Cup titles and four individual world championship golds.

But Hirscher can handle that sort of thing better than anyone. Temperatures around zero and winds approaching 50 mph (75 kph) left the snow hard and dry, more like what’s found in Colorado than Austria. But because he packs a lot of strength into his 5-foot-8 (1.73-meter) frame, he can change direction quickly to recover from mistakes.

“I’m super happy, because now this stupid question has gone away,” Hirscher said, before adding with gusto, “Now The Question is Zzzzzzztt. Deleted.”

The 28-year-old Austrian used a sublime slalom run on an icy course to rise from 12th after the opening downhill in the two-run competition and added that Winter Games triumph to a substantial collection of accolades. He already owned a record six consecutive overall World Cup titles and four individual world championship golds.

Hirscher finished in 2 minutes, 6.52 seconds, which made him 0.23 seconds faster than silver medalist Alexis Pinturault of France. Another Frenchman, Victor Muffat-Jeandet, was third, more than a full second behind Hirscher.

“His mental ability is second to none in this sport. You often see so many guys who are fast in training and can’t figure it out in a race. He’s the exact opposite,” Ligety said. “You can train with him and beat him and you’re all super-confident. Then the next day, he goes and wins a race by a lot.”

France hadn’t had a had a top-three finish in a men’s Olympic combined race in 70 years, let alone a pair of medals on the same afternoon. Might never happen again, either: There is a movement afoot to drop the combined from the Olympic schedule because International Ski Federation, race organizers and broadcasters instead want more short, TV-friendly parallel racing events where skiers go down the piste two at a time, head-to-head.

Olympic Men’s Combined: By the Numbers

“I’m disappointed to see it go away,” said Sasha Rearick, head coach of the U.S. men’s Alpine team, expressing an opinion voiced by several others. “It’s been a good event for us for many reasons. It’s the one thing that brings the tech and the speed together.”

Fitting, then, that a race considered the greatest test of versatility in a sport of increasing specialization was how Hirscher finally got his gold.

As recently as two weeks ago, he said, he wasn’t even sure whether it was worth entering the combined, in part because it would steal training time away from his better events and also because he hadn’t been on downhill skis in a year.

So Hirscher went into the downhill merely hoping to be within 3 seconds of the lead going into the slalom; he wound up less than 1+ seconds behind, the beneficiary of catching a lull in swirling winds. The same gusts that had led to the postponement of the first two races on the Alpine schedule. Others found themselves dealing with headwinds or blasts of air that hit them from the side.

“He got lucky this morning with the wind,” Rearick said. “But his second run, in the slalom, I mean, he had the adversity there. The wind was blowing hard. You couldn’t see the snow. In slalom, when you can’t see your feet, it’s really tough.”

As recently as two weeks ago, he said, he wasn’t even sure whether it was worth entering the combined, in part because it would steal training time away from his better events and also because he hadn’t been on downhill skis in a year.

But Hirscher can handle that sort of thing better than anyone. Temperatures around zero and winds approaching 50 mph (75 kph) left the snow hard and dry, more like what’s found in Colorado than Austria. But because he packs a lot of strength into his 5-foot-8 (1.73-meter) frame, he can change direction quickly to recover from mistakes.

Hirscher finished in 2 minutes, 6.52 seconds, which made him 0.23 seconds faster than silver medalist Alexis Pinturault of France. Another Frenchman, Victor Muffat-Jeandet, was third, more than a full second behind Hirscher.

Two-time Olympic champion Ted Ligety of the U.S., fifth Tuesday, lauded another Hirscher trait.

“His mental ability is second to none in this sport. You often see so many guys who are fast in training and can’t figure it out in a race. He’s the exact opposite,” Ligety said. “You can train with him and beat him and you’re all super-confident. Then the next day, he goes and wins a race by a lot.”

Hirscher has dominated the week-in, week-out World Cup circuit, accumulating 55 race wins, second among men only to Ingemar Stenmark’s 86. He has nine world championship medals. This is his third Olympics, but the only previous medal was a slalom silver in 2014.

Fitting, then, that a race considered the greatest test of versatility in a sport of increasing specialization was how Hirscher finally got his gold.

And while Hirscher himself has insisted all along he did not need to burnish his legacy, he sure did look pleased when he leapt atop the podium, then pumped both arms overhead, during a flower ceremony.

There could be more to come: Hirscher will be favored in the slalom and giant slalom.

“He is the greatest skier ever, and he can break all the records,” Pinturault said. “It just depends how long he wants to continue.”

Two-time Olympic champion Ted Ligety of the U.S., fifth Tuesday, lauded another Hirscher trait.

No matter how long Hirscher does continue, he’ll never again have to hear The Question.

(Reuters) PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – Marcel Hirscher, the greatest skier of his generation, ended his long wait for an Olympic gold medal when the Austrian claimed top spot in the men's combined event after a blistering slalom run on Tuesday.

Hirscher, who has won the last six overall World Cup titles and is poised to claim a seventh, climbed from an unexpectedly high 12th place after the downhill segment at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre to pip France’s Alexis Pinturault by 0.23 seconds.

The Austrian’s previous best in the Olympics was a silver medal in slalom at Sochi four years ago.

“I’m super happy because now this stupid question (about whether) I’m thinking that my career is perfect without a gold medal is gone away,” he told reporters.

“I killed it. It is something special but really unexpected. We were not sure two weeks ago if I would compete in the combined or not.”

The Austrian was forced to hold back his joy for a few moments after team mate Matthias Mayer, who was within touching distance, made a strong start to his slalom but forked a gate and fell.

The 28-year-old Hirscher, who has said this would be his last Olympics, then sprinted out into the finishing area to celebrate his triumph.

Victor Muffat-Jeandet completed a good day for French skiers by claiming the bronze medal behind compatriot Pinturault in an event that brings together a downhill stage and then a slalom section to test the all-round skills of competitors.

Hirscher has won 10 World Cup races in slalom and giant slalom this season leaving Pinturault delighted to have just finished so close to the winner.

“I’m really, really happy. Marcel has been unbeatable… so I really had to try hard and at least it was only two tenths. I can only be happy and proud,” he said.

Muffat-Jeandet said he had paid the price for a lacklustre downhill effort, where he finished 20th, more than a second behind Hirscher.

“I was really disappointed and angry with my downhill run. In skiing you have to do two full runs and with guys like Pinturault and Hirscher, if you do one bad run it’s not enough for the podium,” the Frenchman said.

Norway’s Aksel Svindal, who was second after the downhill segment behind Germany’s Thomas Dressen, surprisingly decided not to run the slalom leg.

Team-mate Aleksanderr Aamodt Kilde said the 35-year-old Svindal had been wary about damaging his knee, which he has had long-running problems with and had operated on last year.

“He has this knee, you know. So he tried on the warm-up but, you know, icy conditions, really, really bumpy, so he decided not to risk the other races by skiing slalom,” he said.

Early leader Dressen, who has little slalom pedigree, finished in ninth position on a day when organisers were delighted to finally get action underway following 48 hours of weather postponements.

With strong winds still a concern, the competition went ahead with an adjusted downhill stage, racing lower down the course at the designated super-G start and using the ‘blue wind line’ which made for easier jumps.

Dressen was first out and completed the course in one minute, 19.24 seconds and Hirscher, second down, was 1.32 seconds slower.

The winds soon whipped up and caused problems on the relatively benign jumps, however.

Russian Pavel Trikhichev and American Ryan Cochran-Siegle both crashed out after clipping gates.

Italian Peter Fill somehow managed to land safely when the wind caught him midway through a jump and forced him into an awkward position, but he later crashed out in the slalom.


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