Who will write Olympic history at Rosa Khutor?
Written by Mike Phillips
The world of Alpine ski racing eagerly awaits the lighting of the 22nd Winter Olympic flame in Sochi, Russia, on Friday. A place in history beckons for the ten lucky gold medallists, but in whose rapid ski tracks will they tread? As the countdown continues, let’s take a short trip down memory lane.
Alpine ski racing first became an Olympic sport in 1936, twelve years after the inaugural Games were held in Chamonix. Only the combined was staged in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and it would be St Moritz in 1948 – the post-war ‘Games of Renewal’ – before a broader and more recognisable Alpine program saw separate medals awarded for downhill and slalom.
As the sport enjoyed popular success and gained rapidly in profile, the Alpine program expanded further over time. The first Olympic medals in giant slalom were handed out in Oslo in 1952 (Stein Eriksen of Norway and Andrea Mead-Lawrence of the USA the recipients of gold), while the introduction of the Super-G in Calgary in 1988 later created the five-discipline program we know today.
So which nation has won the most Olympic medals in Alpine ski racing? Did you really need to ask? Austria has been by far the most successful participating country, with 31 golds and more than 100 medals in total. This remarkable record far outstrips the still-excellent performance of second-placed Switzerland (18 golds), third-placed Germany (16 – including West and Unified teams), fourth-placed France (15) and fifth-placed USA (14).
Individually, the most successful Alpine ski racers at the Games are, perhaps ironically, from the Nordic countries, with Kjetil André Aamodt (8 medals) and Anja Paerson (6 – tied with Janica Kostelic of Croatia) sitting atop the leaderboard. For the leading Austrian, you surprisingly need to scan all the way down to tenth: the great Hermann Maier, his four medals including those two unforgettable golds in Nagano, just days after his horrendous crash in the downhill.
And so to Sochi, where Bode Miller – the most decorated Olympian of the current crop of athletes – needs three more medals to join Aamodt at the top of the all-time list. With podiums in three disciplines this season, including a superb recent performance on the Streif at Kitzbühel, few would put that stellar achievement beyond him. And at 36 years of age, the American would also become the oldest Olympic gold medallist in Alpine skiing history should he visit the top step of the podium in Russia.
Though the Austrian and Swiss teams will be aiming to add further to their weighty historic haul of medals – with Lara Gut, Anna Fenninger and Marcel Hirscher strong contenders in at least two disciplines each – perhaps the best overall team prospects in Sochi belong to the USA. Ted Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin each have outstanding gold medal chances, while Miller could go close in as many as four disciplines and few would entirely discount the out-of-form Julia Mancuso, who has an enviable track record of rising to the big occasion. If anything can compensate for the unfortunate absence of Lindsey Vonn, then the strength in depth of this star-studded team is surely it.
Seventy-eight years after they won the first men’s and women’s Olympic gold medals in the sport, watch out too for Team Germany. Maria Höfl-Riesch won the downhill test event in Sochi two years ago and has been an almost permanent fixture on the podium this season across multiple events, while Felix Neureuther has proved himself more than capable of taking on the once untouchable Hirscher in the slalom. With both racers having grown up on the slopes of the Gudiberg where those first Alpine competitions were held back in 1936, a historic achievement would be guaranteed were they to triumph.
History would call, too, for Norway and Great Britain, whose citizens we must thank respectively for the invention of skiing and for the development of the modern Alpine events. Admittedly, the former’s chances of success are infinitely greater – with reigning Super-G champion Aksel Lund Svindal certain to start favourite in the opening race, the men’s downhill, on Sunday morning – but for sheer Olympic spirit a gold medal would surely belong to Britain’s Chemmy Alcott, who lines up at the starting gate after an improbable recovery from three broken legs and the withdrawal several years ago of her national support funding.
Finally, let’s not forget the small nations. Tiny Liechtenstein has already racked up an impressive nine Olympic medals in Alpine ski racing – not bad for a country of just 36,000 people – and it would be a surprise if its latest speedster, Tina Weirather, did not make it double figures. And just a year after she entered the Schladming world championships with realistic hopes of winning five gold medals, Slovenia’s Tina Maze will be aiming to rediscover her best form and claim the third Olympic medal of her career.
The stage is set for a wonderful series of competitions, and we wish the very best of luck to all athletes representing their nations in Sochi.