Freed from the looming shadow of his Austrian team-mate Hermann Maier, whose motorbike accident last summer prevented him from defending either of this Olympic skiing titles here, Stephan Eberharter was supposed to have had these Games at his mercy. But after settling for bronze in last Sunday's downhill, the man tipped as a potential champion in three events saw another opportunity slide out of his grasp yesterday as he was beaten to the super-G gold by Kjetil Andre Aamodt by just one tenth of a second.
Baby Shark, as the compact Norwegian veteran is known on the circuit, already had a scent of blood, having won gold in Wednesday's combined downhill-slalom. His style – sleek and intent as his name suggests – was perfectly suited to a tight and twisting Grizzly course which left several contenders, including Norway's downhill silver medallist Lasse Kjus, mauled to the point where they skidded out of contention.
So it is Aamodt, a 30-year-old from Oslo, who is emerging as the skier of these Games, rather than the man who has dominated this season's World Cup circuit with nine victories, including three in the super-G. Ten years after winning his first Olympic gold at the Albertville Games, also in the super-G, the affable man whose skiing hero is the legendary Ingemar Stenmark is taking on a legendary feel himself. His career total of 16 world and Olympic medals is a men's record, and he shows no sign of letting the number stop there.
"It's an amazing feeling," said Aamodt after finishing in 1min 21.58sec. "The combined was my event, and it gave me a lot of confidence. I wanted to do well here, and I managed to do it. But today was just a bonus, a dream come true. I haven't won the super-G for six years, so I needed to get lucky."
In the end, Aamodt got the luck Eberharter has lacked. Such has been the Austrian's form this season that he was entitled to arrive here with an optimistic mindset. But his experience in the downhill, when he was beaten to the gold by his colleague Fritz Strobl, and to the silver by Kjus, was sufficient reason for that optimism to have been guarded. Not to mention the particular demands of a super-G course that started two thirds of the way down the Grizzly's back.
Unlike the downhill, where competitors had three days of training to acquaint themselves with the vertiginous nature of the challenge, the super-G offers skiers no practice time, merely an opportunity to walk the course an hour or so before they plunge off in earnest. It is the closest thing in Olympic skiing to blind faith.
Compared to the start of the women's super-G tomorrow at Glacier Bowl, on Wildflower, the men's equivalent – below Flintlock Jump, above Bear Trap on Grizzly – certainly sounded more savagely testing, and Eberharter was on his guard. "It is more difficult to have the super-G on this slope than the downhill," he said, "because we have a lot of jumps and traversing and it makes it not so easy to inspect the course and to imagine how fast we should approach all these tough turns. It's a really tough race."
The truth of Eberharter's assessment was borne out before he even took to the course as seventh man down. His two predecessors, Didier Cuche of Switzerland and Fredrik Nyberg of Sweden both overreached themselves on the final, 74 degree drop known as Rendezvous Face, failing to rendezvous with the required gate after losing control coming over the jump.
Eberharter, too, struggled to stay within bounds as he pushed his cause in the final part of the race, but as soon as he swept over the line his head soon dropped as he saw that he had not – quite – done enough to displace the third man down, Aamodt.
For just over two minutes, it seemed as if Strobl would add a bronze to the gold he had won a week earlier as he produced a characteristically powerful performance which belied the fact that he had been confined to his bed on Monday with sickness and a fever.
His time of 1:21.92 was bettered on the next run, however, by his Austrian team-mate Andreas Schifferer, who had been unable to make the downhill team despite finishing eighth and seventh in overall training, but earned tangible consolation by recording 1:21.83.
Taking three of the first four places represented another huge statement of overall superiority by the Austrian team, who were made to feel at home throughout the morning by the Tyrolean band that played in the stands, the sun dazzling off their exuberant brass. But for Eberharter, they might as well have played a lament.
"Winning a gold medal here is one of my goals," he had said after Sunday's race. "But you can't say you're disappointed after not winning a gold. The world keeps on turning and I have two more chances."
Now he has just one. And for all his sane perspective, should he fail to win Thursday's giant slalom, the axis of Eberharter's own little world will have tilted alarmingly.
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