DAEGWALLYEONG, South Korea — First came the gasps, then a collective groan, and then silence, the kind of unsettled quiet that accompanies disbelief. Marcel Hirscher, the great Austrian skier trying for history, was up on the top third of the hill, not powering around gates and carving gorgeous turns but standing still in a puff of snow.
Poof: That is how fast disaster can strike on a slalom course. This year, Hirscher and Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen had given the appearance they had tamed the capricious nature of technical skiing. They had finished first and second, in either order, 11 times this World Cup season. Thursday, on the biggest stage, the Olympic course called Rainbow 1 at Yongpyong Alpine Centre reasserted the supremacy of the sport’s randomness. Hirscher and Kristoffersen had owned the sport, and slalom skiing is not a sport that likes to be owned.
The men’s slalom was less about who won — that would be 35-year-old Swede Andre Myhrer, a four-time Olympian who had previously nabbed only a bronze — than about who did not finish the race. The lasting image will not be an exultant skier hoisting poles above his head, but rather the world’s two best skiers stomping around with the desperate awkwardness of a man trying to walk up a down escalator.
Hirscher, already the winner of two golds in PyeongChang and the favorite Thursday, missed a gate in the top third of the course in his first run. It created an opening for Kristoffersen, the leader after the first run and, without Hirscher in the field, a runaway favorite. Halfway down, with the gold medal in his grasp, he missed a gate. Aside from a rowdy bunch of Swedes, the gasps and groans returned.
“It was a remarkable race,” U.S. Coach Sasha Rearick said. “When you watch slalom just this year and you see how dominant Kristoffersen and Marcel Hirscher have been, it is surprising. When you know the game of slalom and the challenges of it, today was not that surprising.”
Hirscher’s bid to become the second man to win three Alpine gold medals in one Olympics came to a shocking end. Before he could swish halfway down the track in the first run, Hirscher missed a gate and skied out, the first time he had failed to finish a race in more than two years. In what may have been his final Olympic appearance, Hirscher reached the bottom to polite, confused applause.
“It was a big surprise that I won this gold medal in super combined,” Hirscher said. “It was as well a big surprise that I’m standing right now here, out of the race. But this is part of the game. Hopefully there are still tickets for a plane right now.”
The slalom offered another reminder, days after part-time snowboarder Ester Ledecka won the women’s super-G, of Olympic Alpine skiing’s unpredictability. And so PyeongChang had another surprise Alpine winner, in this case a veteran Swede who skied out in Sochi, a four-string enthusiast who buys a new guitar after every victory.
“I’m not sure what an Olympic gold is worth in guitars,” Myhrer said. “Maybe I have to buy two.”
Earlier at the PyeongChang Games, Hirscher, 28, won the downhill combined and giant slalom, capturing his first two gold medals, a dual capstone to an all-time career. Hirscher had finished 51 consecutive events, including 24 straight slaloms, since Feb. 14, 2016.
“I can’t remember the last run he made a mistake,” Italian skier Manfred Moelgg said.
Switzerland’s Ramon Zenhaeusern won silver, 0.34 seconds behind Myhrer’s winning time of 1:38.99. And Austrian Michael Matt claimed the bronze, perhaps dimming the angst about Hirscher back home. David Chodounsky led a trio of Americans with an 18th-place finish, outskiing his No. 26 starting position despite suffering a back injury this week. Mark Engel came in 31st, and Nolan Kasper skied out in his second run.
Despite colossal expectations, Hirscher entered Thursday with muted hopes. In training runs the past two days, Hirscher found the snow powdery and clingy. He prefers hard, icy courses, like the ones predominant in Europe.
In training, Hirscher said, he could never find a setup that allowed him to navigate the conditions with speed. A significant part of Hirscher’s success lies in his ability to test and choose the most effective equipment. Thursday, he found nothing that made him anticipate success.
“We were not able to find something that made it possible to let the skis go around the gates smooth and clean,” Hirscher said. “Skiers, they sometimes have a grip problem on ice, for example. I never have grip problems on ice. If it is grippy and hard, packed snow like here today, I’m really not able to handle this. But this is as well my mistake of my technique and my powerful skiing. The smoother you ski, the better you are in these conditions.”
Hirscher found himself at peace following the run. First, he had two gold medals. Second, no matter how stunning his performance to the grandstand, he figured it could happen. Knowing the conditions, he had been preparing to swallow defeat for three days.
“If you have already accepted you have no chance if nothing is going to change, then you have enough time to be fine with it,” Hirscher said.
Kristoffersen would take a similarly sanguine approach to his stunning failure. He had come out of the first hairpin turn too late, and turning around the next gate, his boots hit a wall formed by a groove. Rather than slow down, he charged but couldn’t turn the next gate in time. He had taken a risk to win, and he had no regrets.
“Pick myself up?” Kristoffersen said. “I’m already up. I’m not down in the snow anymore.”
As he built the greatest men’s skiing career of his era, Hirscher prioritized season-long championships, which meant safer lines and a cautious approach. He still won World Cup races, a startling 55 of them; he possessed so many brilliant traits, he could land atop podiums even as he managed risk. But he left the impression, even as he won more prizes than any of skier of his era, that he was offering only a percentage of his full powers.
These Olympics had been cast as Hirscher’s ultimate validation, the crowning achievement of an all-time legacy. What they had really been was a full reveal of his genius. He showed what happens when he eschews prudence for domination, when all he cares about is being the fastest man down the mountain, when he regards victory as essential. He won the giant slalom by the largest Olympic margin since 1968.
“Now, his time can come to show everybody in the world, without tactics and just going full for the victory, what he’s able to do,” said Hirscher’s coach, Michael Pircher.
In the aftermath, speculation turned to Hirscher’s Olympic future. He had said these would be his last Games, but in the wake of the slalom, he waffled.
“Not sure,” Hirscher said. “I need a gold medal in slalom. Just kidding. We will see in four years.”
Hirscher has thrived while competing under as much pressure as any athlete in the Games. He had failed to win a gold medal in his first two Olympics, and while he viewed his six season-long world titles as a grander accomplishment, ski-mad Austria demanded he add a gold medal. Could he really be considered the best ever without one? “If he don’t win,” his press manager Stefan Illek said, “it’s Watergate.”
Despite the end, his Olympics had been far from that. His Games ended with a staggering sight, with gasps and groans, but that is not how he — nor his country — will remember them.
“All in all, there is no room or place for the disappointing of people,” Hirscher said. “They are very happy with two gold medals.”