St. Anton, Austria Feb. 10, 2001--After a few days off, today was all about the Austrians again. But thanks to Slovenian Mitja Kunc, a surprise bronze medalist, it wasn't a sweep. An estimated 50,000 fans showed up to see Mario Matt, Austria's favorite heartthrob win the slalom and wrap up these World Championships. Benjamin Raich led his team after the first run but slipped up in the afternoon and had to settle for silver.
Slalom used to be a whole lot less complicated. The event is exciting to watch, but holds few surprises especially in the first run. It used to be that the top 15 racers were issued their start numbers at random, so you could expect to see a winning run from anyone amongst the top 15 racers. The strategy was pretty simple-he who went all out without blowing out both runs, would win.
But now only the top seven racers are scrambled, as are the next eight. Starting early is such an advantage, that you rarely see anyone win a run outside the top seven. And because the top 15 finishers run in reverse order for the second run, if the course conditions are especially brutal, it can be good strategy even for the top guys to finish a bit off the pace. If the time deficit is not too great, a better start position can be a huge advantage in the second run. But if you dog it too much and have too much time to make up that strategy backfires. Conversely, if you have a good start number and clean course in the first run, the game plan usually is to build up as big a lead as you can, so you have plenty of cushion to make up for running 15th on the second run. For anyone outside of the top few, it turns into a race for 15th. Confused yet? Like I said, slalom used to be a whole lot easier to watch.
The only thing easy to understand is that the Austrian men rule in slalom. After the first run they held four of the top 5 positions, and a sweep seemed likely. Kjetil Andre Aamodt, with the coveted bib#1, skied a conservative first run that left him 1.28 off the pace in fourth. Bad strategy--he was the one who was supposed to build a huge lead to pad his second run. The last piece of slalom strategy lies in teamwork and the Slovenians played it perfectly. All four Slovenians stacked themselves between six and tenth positions, with one racer between Jure Kosir (in tenth) and the rest of his teammates. Kosir blaze down and had just enough time to radio a course report to his teammates. The Slovenians managed a 1-2-3 sweep on the second run, and Kunc moved from seventh to third overall.
There is one more strategy. You can just be Austrian and untouchable, like Mario Matt was today. Matt and Raich, 21 and 22 respectively have not had to waste any time getting used to the new short slalom skis. They almost grew up with them, and Matt especially has none of the balance problems the new skis pose to some of the older racers. His feet look glued to the snow no matter what craters he encounters on course. Plus, even Raich admits that Matt "is a very cool guy-cooler than me in the start." The local boy, who lives a few miles down the road from St. Anton in Flirsch did not disappoint his fans. In addition to his 50,000 adoring fans he was congratulated in the finish by Alberto Tomba and Ingemar Stenmark. Watching from the stands were Russian President Vladimir Putin, Slovenian Prime Minster Janesz Drnovsek and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel. Not a bad reception.
Three Americans raced in today's slalom, and both were faced with late start numbers. Erik Schlopy started 27, skied too round and could not break into the top 15 for his second run. He finished 22nd. Casey Puckett started 65th and moved to 34th. Sash Gros did not finish his first run. Schlopy admitted that he misses having Miller, the top US slalom skier around. "It's not an excuse by any means, but he adds another good element and we do miss him. From here Schlopy heads to Japan for two slaloms and two giant slaloms. The Americans leave with only onne medal but many lessons. That's not a warm fuzzy feeling, but it will have to do for now. As Schlopy puts it: "Maybe having a bad experience here was just what I needed. It sure doesn't feel great right now, but I know I will learn from it."
Erik Schlopy learned how to use his head during his semi retirement. Once back on the US Ski Team he found the skiing easier than tracking down a head gear sponsor. So Schlopy came up with bundle-o-sponsors tactic. Instead of selling his headgear spot to one company, and asking for a big chunk of change, he sold bundles of races, each for a lower price. His sponsor for the World Championships was AEXCO, a natural gas company from Denver. The next customer gets Japan and the World Cup finals. And if he runs out, the logo will most likely read, "Space available, inquire within."
By failing to win any gold medals in the World Championships, Hermann Maier just misses the 100 million schilling mark for earnings this year. Maier says he will retire at the end of next season, when the World Cup Finals are in his hometown of Flachau. If Salt Lake doesn't work out for his checkbook, there's always Regis.
The trailer-full of Stihl chainsaws that are buzzing around St. Anton are not clearing brush or competing with the ever-present air horns. They are hard at work in the hands of a Swedish artist who is carving a likeness of every medal winner. The statues will be auctioned off for a minimum of 100,000 schillings, with proceeds going to the Thomas Fogdoe foundation. Fogdoe was the Swedish World Cup racer who was paralyzed from the neck down in a skiing accident. His foundation benefits injured athletes.
Now THAT Hurt
Casey Puckett got the award for the nastiest fall of the week, for his upside down and backwards routine in the Combined downhill. When asked if he was still sore, he seemed confused. "Oh, from that?" Seems Puckett had a few other close calls over the week. The worse was while he was freeskiing down to the GS by way of the men's downhill. Right as he came in to the steepest narrowest section, called the Eisfalle, he encountered the army removing snow with wide bands of plastic. After trying in vain to stop, he decided to jump over the plastic. It might have worked had the army men not decided at the same moment, to help him out by lifting the plastic so he could go under. Got him right at the knees and flipped him like a very fast pancake.