Many greats don’t even get halfway in last race
SESTRIERE COLLE, Italy – The stands for the men’s Olympic slalom, the last race of the Games, were nearly full. After all, World Cup slalom leader Giorgio Rocca, Italy’s most prized Olympian, was expected to bring it home. Italy’s most revered ski racer of all time, Alberto Tomba, was in attendance, also hoping to see his young countryman and successor make live a piece of his own glory.
Rocca was the first starter in Saturday’s race. Italian flags billowed from every clump of the band stands. All eyes were fixed on the course.
Cheers erupted as Rocca burst out of the start house, growing louder as he rounded each gate. Then Rocca was halfway down, smacked a gate, his skis crossed, and he went down on his back, in a most unchampion-like fashion.
A collective “Ooooooooh” wheezed out of the crowd.
And that sound describes the rest of the evening better than words can for anyone pulling for Italians or Americans.
“I’m sorry,” Rocca said. “I knew the course changed in that portion of the race. I was wrong. It’s my fault. I lost a great opportunity that can come back only in the next Olympics.”
Rocca was promptly joined on the attrition list by some of his fellow top-ranked slalom racers.
A whopping nine racers of the first 30 to start failed to finish the first run, including Bode Miller. Olympic combined champion and American slalom favorite Ted Ligety had a slippery start to his run, but appeared to finish in third place. After a few minutes, however, he was disqualified for straddling gate No. 6.
“Part of it is the snow is slicker than I thought it would have been when I inspected the course,” said Ligety. “The biggest part of it is Olympic jitters. You know? Guys are really going for it and wanting to prove something in medals. When you’re going with that much risk, you’re more likely to go out.”
The sad side of it all for Ligety is that, unlike Rocca, who has won five World Cups this season and DNF’d in three, and unlike Miller, who is famous for his inconsistency across the board, a disqualification is rare.
“I can’t remember any times in training that I straddled,” he said. “I don’t think there was a single time last year that I straddled. It’s just one of those bad luck things that happen.”
Miller was also at the top of the course when he straddled a gate. He skied to the edge of the course, hung his head and never skied down to the finish. He was spotted later skiing off into the distance with a second pair of skis slung over his shoulder.
Austrians – yawn – take all the medals
Much to the dismay of the crowd, two of Italy’s runner ups, Manfred Moelgg and Patrick Thaler, also crashed in the first run, leaving overall World Cup leader Benjamin Raich of Austria in the lead for the second run and Finland’s Kalle Palander, ranked No. 2 in World Cup slalom, just .01 seconds behind him.
U.S. skiers James Cochran and veteran Chip Knight made the cut for run No. 2 in 12th and 14th respectively.
“Quite honestly, I thought the course was easy,” Knight said of the first run. “I think it’s more the snow and the Olympics. Guys are gunning for it. When there’s so much pressure to get a medal here, guys are just going to the max.”
In the end, Palander straddled the second gate and lost out, Cochran led the Americans with 12th and Knight finished 18th. The podium was swept by Austrians, led by Raich with gold, Reinfried Herbst with silver and Rainer Schoenfelder with bronze.
Both the Olympic pressure factor and the fact that rare is a slalom racer who finishes every race, contributed to the elimination of so many greats, according to those closest to the course.
“I’ve never seen so many guys choke,” said U.S. Team slalom Greg Needell, who was standing at the top of the course.
“It looked like everyone was stiff,” he said. “Some guys were tight and some guys were pushing too hard. Slalom … It’s a crap shoot. Guys who make it down 75, 80-percent of the year in races, they’re way ahead of the game.”
It’s the last race of the Olympic Games. It’s slalom racing. Alberta Tomba summed up the quick elimination of Rocca and the rest in two words:
“It happens,” he said. “It’s a pity, but it happens.”