PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — They held a new Olympic skiing event on an Olympic course with Olympic medals at stake in front of a loud, rowdy Olympic crowd Saturday. The only thing missing, really? Some of the top Olympic talent.
In all, 15 of the 23 athletes who won individual medals in the sport over the past two weeks skipped the Winter Games debut of the Alpine team event. That includes such stars as Marcel Hirscher, Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn.
The final Alpine gold at the Pyeongchang Olympics went to Switzerland, which beat Austria in the final; Norway defeated France for the bronze. That left Austria (three golds) Switzerland (two), and Norway (one) atop the sport’s standings with seven medals apiece.
The Swiss quartet included previous medalists Wendy Holdener and Ramon Zenhaeusern, along with Daniel Yule and Denise Feierabend. Austria was without Hirscher, the only Alpine double gold medalist in South Korea and a six-time overall World Cup champion.
“We need to be honest,” Yule acknowledged. “It’s not the same as winning an individual medal.”
The U.S. was eliminated by Britain in the first round of the 16-nation bracket, leaving the Americans with three medals, their lowest Alpine total since 2006.
“It would have been nice to have our No. 1 here,” American skier David Chodounsky said about Shiffrin. “It probably would have helped to overcome some bad luck.”
That was a reference to his dropping a ski pole right at the start.
“It got caught on something. You try to get out of there so fast that that pole was gone,” he said. “And I’m at the first gate. I’m like, ‘Uh, oh.’”
The real problem: This was run on something similar to a slalom course, except shorter — most runs lasted about 20 seconds — and straighter, and most of the men punched the flagged gates out of the way with their poles and plowed right through.
That seemed to make size an advantage for folks like the 6-foot-7 (2-meter) Zenhaeusern.
“If you stay with your shoulders in the gates, it could be dangerous,” said Yule, noting that a smaller skier such as the 5-foot-8 (1.73-meter) Hirscher could get hurt.
That’s one reason some leading skiers gave for staying away. Other explanations: not wanting to rely on teammates for a medal; needing a break between the Olympics and next weekend’s resumption of the World Cup season; no interest in learning a different discipline.
“It’s really hard for the body to ski like this,” said men’s slalom gold medalist Andre Myhrer, whose Swedish team also featured women’s slalom champion Frida Hansdotter but lost in Saturday’s quarterfinals to Austria.
Here’s how the team event worked: Each nation used two men and two women per matchup for total of four 1-on-1 parallel runs. If the score ended up 2-all, the tiebreaker was the lower combined time of each team’s fastest man and fastest woman.
The participants themselves were enthusiastic, as were the fans, who made a lot more noise than during most of the earlier Alpine races at these Olympics.
“The turnout’s been awesome. People can see exactly what’s going on. It’s head-to-head, side-by-side,” Chodounsky said. “I think that’s attractive to a lot of people who don’t really understand skiing.”
And as for what could draw more elite skiers?
“I don’t know what could make it more appealing for us. It could be a scheduling issue or if we had more time before the next competition or if it wasn’t so jam-packed,” Vonn said Friday. “For us, the Olympics already are so stressful, and if you’re racing all the events, it’s a very long Games. So maybe scheduling could be something that would improve that. But I’m not sure. It’s a tricky one.”