PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Superlatives are suddenly in short supply around the Olympic Alpine venues. At the base of the hill, they’re not debating whether Austria’s Marcel Hirscher is the best skier alive. Suddenly, he has a chance to leave these Olympics with a solid claim as the best male ski racer ever.
“He is in his own league,” declared Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen.
That was said by a guy with two Olympic medals to his name.
“You always want to beat him,” noted Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud, “but you also have to be a little thankful that you’re skiing in the same era as the biggest of them all.”
That was said by a guy who’s won five.
“He is the greatest ever,” pronounced France’s Alexis Pinturault. “You just have to see his career. He’s beaten everybody now.”
That was said by a guy who has three.
If words aren’t enough, perhaps the numbers will silence any lingering naysayers. Hirscher, 28, won his second gold of the PyeongChang Games on Sunday, breezing to victory in the giant slalom. He made his second Olympic title look easy. He could’ve used his ski poles as knitting needles and still bested the field — with enough time to spare to pass out homemade scarves at the finish line.
His total time in the two giant slalom runs here was 2:18.04. He was 1.27 seconds better than any of the other 109 competitors who were hopelessly trying to stage a coup on Alpine royalty. So how big of a win was that? You have to go back 50 years to find a ski racer who posted a bigger margin of victory in the Olympic giant slalom. In some years, such as 1994, there were as many as 10 racers who were closer to the gold medal winner than Sunday’s second-place racer, Kristoffersen, was to Hirscher.
Pinturault took bronze in Sunday’s race and had to settle for silver Tuesday when Hirscher won the combined event. Pinturault was the only racer to finish within a second of Hirscher in the combined and sounds almost appreciative for the opportunity to keep losing to Hirscher here.
“Maybe I’ll finish a lot of times second in the future, but it’s something really special to race against Marcel,” he said. “He’s the greatest Alpine skier, and I’m really grateful and thankful of competing against him, even if I’m more second than first.”
These Olympics were about Hirscher’s legacy. He was a great racer before he came here, and the medals offer only confirmation and additional accolades. He’s poised to win his seventh straight World Cup overall title this season and has already posted 55 career World Cup wins. And though he had six world championships to his name, until last week, he had zero Olympic titles. In two previous Olympic appearances — first as a 20-year old in Vancouver and then in Sochi at age 24 — he finished fifth, fourth, second and fourth.
That’s why the first gold here was big.
“I’ve won 55 World Cup races, blah, blah, and all this stuff, so this is giving you a lot of confidence,” he said. “So I knew, okay, if once it’s not happening or working out good, who cares? I have won way more already than I was ever expecting. This gives you light shoulders.”
But Sunday’s gold medal was big because it means Hirscher now has a chance for a third — and a pretty good chance. He will be a big favorite in Thursday’s slalom. Hirscher has competed in seven World Cup slalom races since November. He won six and took second in the seventh.
“Mentally, it is nothing different between a World Cup race,” Hirscher said of his Olympic runs Sunday. “If you’re fighting for the overall World Cup title, each race is an end game. That means no room for any mistakes, no room for did-not-finish results. So I’m kind of used to being mentally strong.”
No skier has won more than three golds in a single Olympics, and Hirscher will be trying to match Austria’s Toni Sailer (1956), France’s Jean-Claude Killy (1968) and Croatia’s Janica Kostelic (2002).
That he’s in such rarefied air surprises nobody who has watched him blaze through the World Cup circuit these past several seasons. Hirscher is not chasing any competitors in PyeongChang. He is chasing history.
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