As Canadians and Austrians falter, other countries pull ahead in Alpine skiing

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; D05

WHISTLER, B.C. -- By the time the final skiers slashed their way down the giant slalom course here Tuesday, Bode Miller's chance at winning a fourth medal in as many Olympic races had long since passed, and the U.S. Ski Team's remarkable run of eight medals in the first six events was over. Red, white and blue still swirled in the crowd, but those flags represented Norway.

And as the last skier with a chance to win the event, Switzerland's Carlo Janka, left the starting gate, the white-cross-on-red-background flags of his home country flew as well. By that time, though, the flags of two nations that came here hoping to beat not only the Americans, but everyone else, were folded, tucked away for another day -- and perhaps another Olympics.

The Canadians prepared to host the Olympics by sinking money into a program they boldly named "Own the Podium." On the mountains, they have done nothing but cede it. The Austrian men's team has won Alpine medals in every Winter Games since 1936. With just one race to go, it has none here.

"It's hard to be on top," said Austria's Benjamin Raich, who won the giant slalom gold four years ago in Turin, but finished sixth here Tuesday.

Janka found himself on top after a pair of sterling runs, the second of which allowed him to overcome the two Norwegians ahead of him: Kjetil Jansrud, who took silver, and Aksel Lund Svindal, whose bronze in the giant slalom helped him match Miller with a medal of each color at these Olympics.

"It's such a great thing when you are Olympic champion," said the 23-year-old Janka, a rising star who could win medals for years to come.

Miller could have felt such a sentiment just two days earlier, when he won the super combined to give him his first gold medal to go along with the silver he won in super-G and the bronze he won in downhill. But Tuesday, he didn't even advance to the second of two giant slalom runs. Trying to push the limits a bit, he nearly crashed. And though he saved himself -- he "made a recovery like only Bode can," U.S. men's coach Sasha Rearick said -- he caught his hand on a gate and recovered again. But it was too much. He planted a hard right foot, hit a gate -- and skied off course.

"I'm taking more risk than everyone else," Miller, who skied past reporters at the finish area, said in an interview with the Associated Press. "That's partly why I'm able to get medals. It looks easy when you make it."

Miller's failure to advance left Ted Ligety -- the top-ranked giant slalom skier on the World Cup circuit -- as the lone remaining American hope. Ligety finished the first run in eighth place, .60 of a second behind Janka, and said he "definitely didn't feel defeated between runs." But he made a huge error almost immediately out of the gate, and could never make up the time. He finished ninth, 1.28 seconds behind Janka's winning time of 2 minutes 37.83 seconds.

"I felt like . . . of all the guys on the team, I should've been getting medals, for sure," Ligety said.

For the Austrians and Canadians, it now doesn't matter who might win a medal. Can anyone stand up?

Canada arrived here with a perceived home-mountain advantage, a concept most skiers dismissed given that course set-ups and conditions vary from training to competition. It also arrived with a few key injuries, notably to Fran├žois Bourque, Jean-Philippe Roy and John Kucera, who won the downhill at last year's World Championships but broke his leg in December.

Still, any of a slew of Canadian men and women -- Manny Osborne-Paradis, Erik Guay, Robbie Dixon, Emily Brydon, Britt Janyk -- were considered medal hopefuls before the Games started. Their best finishes: Guay's fifths in both downhill and super-G. In four of seven Alpine races thus far, Canada's top finisher was 13th or worse.

Own the podium? They haven't sniffed it.

"I know what they were trying to do," Guay said of the Canadian Olympic Committee. "They were trying to get Canadians fired up about it, setting big goals, ambitious goals for the team. I think it's a good way to get Canadians fired up about it. The downside to that is that it does add some pressure to the athletes that are competing."

The Austrians arrive at any Olympics -- or any ski competition, period -- with plenty of pressure. Austrian men have won 60 Alpine medals. No other country's men's and women's team have combined to win that many.

"For us, we have good names," said Raich, who owns four Olympic medals. "But we have to perform every time, and it's not always possible, because we are just normal people, and human -- and not machines."

Saturday, Andrea Fischbacher delivered Austria's first Alpine gold of these Olympics, joining a bronze from Elisabeth Goergl. Thus far, that's it. Norway, Switzerland and the United States have all won more medals on this mountain.

"It's pretty cool that the Austrians haven't medaled here, especially being the ski powerhouse that they are," Ligety said. "It's especially cool that America's won so many medals and we've kind of stepped it up here."

Tuesday, when Janka stepped into the starting gate for his second run, Austria's Marcel Hirscher sat in third place. If Janka slowed at all, giving back the advantage he built in the first run, Hirscher would win bronze, and Austria's men's medal drought would end.

"The pressure was big," Janka said, but there is a reason he has, at an early stage in his career, been dubbed "Ice Man." He skied cleanly, the third-fastest in the second run, enough to beat Jansrud by .39 of a second, Svindal by .61 -- and Hirscher by .69.

"Today, no medal for the Austrian team, it's disappointing," Raich said. "But it's skiing, and it's life."

What, he was asked, would the reception be in, say, Vienna, if the Austrian men arrived home with no medals?

"We have one more race," Raich said. "And we'll see."

Over-confidence? Arrogance? Or just knowledge? The race that remains is the slalom, an event in which, four years ago, the Austrians took all three medals. Raich won gold.

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