February 25, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Bob Baum)—Fittingly, three Austrians were the last men standing in the final Alpine event of the Turin Olympics. So much for this being the year the United States would challenge Austria's supremacy in the mountains.
Benjamin Raich earned his second gold medal of the games and led an Austrian sweep in the men's slalom Saturday to complete that country's most successful Olympic Alpine competition ever.
Reinfried Herbst was second and Rainer Schoenfelder third to give Austria 14 Alpine medals, the most ever for any country in the Winter Olympics. The Americans, who had hoped for eight, leave with two.
It was the first time one nation swept the medals in the slalom and only the fifth sweep in 122 Olympic Alpine events. Austria has three of them.
"This is the greatest Olympics ever for us, Austrian Alpine director Hans Pum said.
Top American hopes Ted Ligety and Bode Miller were eliminated, along with favorite and local hero Giorgio Rocca of Italy, in a brutal first of the two runs.
"We've been showing all season that we can win big races and the guys can ski with the best of the Austrians, U.S. men's slalom and giant slalom coach Mike Morin said. "We handed it to them today. We gave them a triple podium and that hurts.
When it was over, Herbst and Schoenfelder hoisted Raich on their shoulders in celebration in the finish area.
Raich won with a combined two-run time of 1 minute, 43.14 seconds. He had the fastest times in both runs to add the slalom gold to the one he won in the giant slalom on Monday. Herbst was a distant .83 seconds behind and Schoenfelder 1.01 seconds back.
"I'm just very happy, Raich said. "It's unbelievable for me to win two medals here. I was just focused on the second run. The course was tough. I think it's a perfect moment for all the Austrian team. I can't believe it.[pagebreak]Kalle Palander of Finland, second-fastest in the first run, appeared to have taken the lead but was disqualified for straddling a gate, the same fate that befell Ligety in the first run. Palander slammed one ski pole to the snow after realizing what had happened.
Miller, the World Cup overall champion a year ago, will leave the Italian Alps without a medal. He finished his lackluster Olympics by straddling a gate just a few seconds into his run, then skied off the course and raised his arms in mock excitement.
Miller, who has been a local nightlife fixture throughout the games, told The Associated Press he was content with his experience.
"As far as my own personal involvement, I would not change anything. I had an awesome Olympics, Miller told AP sports columnist Jim Litke in an interview. "My preparation certainly could have been different, but I'm not a guy who looks back.
Earlier Friday, Bill Marolt, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, said he would have "a heart-to-heart talk with Miller at the end of this season regarding his declining performances.
"I don't believe we should have conversations like this in the media, Marolt said. "But clearly it will be something we will address at the year's end, and I don't know where that will go right now.
Nine of the top 29 skiers in the competition could not even finish the first run because they either crashed or straddled a gate.
And that didn't include Ligety, who won a surprise gold medal in the men's combined with two blazing slalom runs.
"I thought today would be my day to shine, Ligety said, "but it didn't work out that way.[pagebreak]He made it to the bottom in what would have been a medal-contending time _ only to be disqualified for straddling a gate early on the course.
"Part of it was the snow was slicker than we expected and part of it was Olympic jitters _ guys are going for it, Ligety said. "I still have one gold, so I'm not mad.
The stands at the edge of Sestriere were filled and the mountain village had a festive pre-race atmospherre as Italians crowded to cheer on their last and best hope for an Alpine medal.
But their hopes were dashed less than a minute after the event began when Rocca, the first down the hill and the world's No. 1-ranked slalom skier, got his skis crossed and crashed face-first into the soft snow outside the course.
"The snow was a little bit soft and when you want to go fast, mistakes happen, he said. "It's a shame because it's my last time in Italy in the Olympics. It's sports, you win or lose.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press