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.
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.
Olympic ski champ Marcel Hirscher no longer must hear The Question
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.
“I’m super happy, because now this stupid question has gone away,” Hirscher said, before adding with gusto, “Now The Question is Zzzzzzztt. Deleted.”
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.
Hirscher believes the combined event should be kept but that the downhill section could be replaced by a super-G so racers would not have to spend so much time practicing on pure speed courses.
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.
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“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.”
The sport’s ruling body is leaning toward running more parallel races where skiers compete at the same time, which are growing in popularity on the World Cup circuit.
Fitting, then, that a race considered the greatest test of versatility in a sport of increasing specialization was how Hirscher finally got his gold.
“Everyone is saying, ‘Nice career, but an Olympic gold medal is still missing’. This is perfect, unbelievable. A dream coming true. All the people expected me to win a gold medal, especially in Austria, my home country, where skiing is big,” Hirscher added.
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.
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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.
Hirscher ended Austria’s longest gold medal drought in a men’s Alpine skiing event at the Winter Games, winning Austria’s first Olympic title in a men’s combination event since Mario Reiter won at 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.
Alpine great Marcel Hirscher is an Olympic champion
“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.”
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.
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.”
Brilliant Hirscher claims first Olympic gold
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.
Olympic ski champ Hirscher no longer must hear The Question
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.
Marcel Hirscher of Austria Grabs Elusive Gold Medal
There could be more to come: Hirscher will be favored in the slalom and giant slalom.
Hirscher dominates tough course for first gold medal
“He is the greatest skier ever, and he can break all the records,” Pinturault said. “It just depends how long he wants to continue.”
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No matter how long Hirscher does continue, he’ll never again have to hear The Question.
Team GB’s Christie will take centre stage at the Gangneung Ice Arena in the short-track speedskating, as the triple world champion attempts to fend off home nation favourite Minjeong Chong.
Snowboarder Kim, 17, snatched the first of the day’s eight gold medals in the women’s halfpipe, while World Cup maestro Hirscher ended his long wait for a debut Olympic title.
But Japan’s short-track speed skater Kei Saito, 21, was at the centre of the first doping scandal in Pyeongchang after testing positive for a banned diuretic.
Saito, who has left the athletes’ village, was provisionally suspended pending an investigation. He protested his innocence and vowed to clear his name.
“I want to fight to prove my innocence because I don’t remember (taking the drug) and it’s incomprehensible,” he said in a statement.
Austrian Hirscher strikes gold in men’s combined
While Kim’s brilliant run in the halfpipe stole the show, gold medals also went to Sweden and Norway in cross country skiing, and Italy in short-track speedskating.
Canada beat Switzerland to win the mixed doubles curling, while the Dutch maintained their perfect record in speedskating with a double in the men’s 1,500m.
On the slopes, Austrian star Hirscher cemented his legacy as the best skier of his generation with victory in the combined event.
Hirscher, 28, has been the outstanding skier in his slalom speciality for years, with 55 career World Cup wins.
Austria’s Hirscher takes gold in Men’s Alpine combined
But one prize had always eluded him — an Olympic gold medal. His previous best was a slalom silver from Sochi four years ago.
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After playing down his chances ahead of the race at blustery freezing Pyeongchang, this time he nailed it.
“All the people expected me to win a gold medal, especially in Austria, my home country, where skiing is big,” he said.
“Everyone is saying, ‘Nice career, but an Olympic gold medal is still missing’. This is perfect, unbelievable.”
For Kim, her debut Olympics turned golden as she romped to snowboarding halfpipe victory. Born in the United States to Korean parents, Kim burst into tears as the enormity of her achievement sunk in.
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The teenager, who has melted the hearts of home fans in Pyeongchang, justified her status as the hot favourite with an eye-popping top score of 98.25.
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Pumping her fists after finishing with back-to-back 1080 spins, Kim revealed that her number one fan — her Seoul-based grandmother — had been in the crowd cheering her on.
Marcel Hirscher wins first Olympic gold as Chloe Kim triumphs in halfpipe
“I actually only found out my grandma was at the bottom before my second run,” she said. “So I thought ‘this one’s for Grams!'”
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Also celebrating gold was Stina Nilsson, who won the women’s cross country sprint classic for Sweden. In the men’s event, Johannes Klaebo of Norway won gold on his Olympic debut.
Italy got their first gold of the Games through Arianna Fontana in the 500m women’s short-track speed skating. South Korean multi-medal hope Choi Min-jeong finished second but was disqualified.
In speed skating, the Dutch claimed their fourth gold medal with a one-two in the men’s 1,500m through Kjeld Nuis and Patrick Roest.
Germany celebrated a one-two in the women’s luge, with Natalie Geisenberger pipping Dajana Eitberger to retain her Olympic title.
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In curling, Canada’s Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris danced with delight after hammering Switzerland 10-3 to take the inaugural Olympic mixed doubles title.