PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Marcel Hirscher, the greatest skier of his generation, ended his long wait for an Olympic gold medal when the Austrian claimed top spot in the men’s combined event after a blistering slalom run on Tuesday.
Hirscher, who has won the last six overall World Cup titles and is poised to claim a seventh, climbed from an unexpectedly high 12th place after the downhill segment at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre to pip France’s Alexis Pinturault by 0.23 seconds.
The Austrian’s previous best in the Olympics was a silver medal in slalom at Sochi four years ago.
“I’m super happy because now this stupid question (about whether) I’m thinking that my career is perfect without a gold medal is gone away,” he told reporters.
“I killed it. It is something special but really unexpected. We were not sure two weeks ago if I would compete in the combined or not.”
The Austrian was forced to hold back his joy for a few moments after team mate Matthias Mayer, who was within touching distance, made a strong start to his slalom but forked a gate and fell.
The 28-year-old Hirscher, who has said this would be his last Olympics, then sprinted out into the finishing area to celebrate his triumph.
Victor Muffat-Jeandet completed a good day for French skiers by claiming the bronze medal behind compatriot Pinturault in an event that brings together a downhill stage and then a slalom section to test the all-round skills of competitors.
Hirscher has won 10 World Cup races in slalom and giant slalom this season leaving Pinturault delighted to have just finished so close to the winner.
“I’m really, really happy. Marcel has been unbeatable... so I really had to try hard and at least it was only two tenths. I can only be happy and proud,” he said.
Muffat-Jeandet said he had paid the price for a lackluster downhill effort, where he finished 20th, more than a second behind Hirscher.
“I was really disappointed and angry with my downhill run. In skiing you have to do two full runs and with guys like Pinturault and Hirscher, if you do one bad run it’s not enough for the podium,” the Frenchman said.
Norway’s Aksel Svindal, who was second after the downhill segment behind Germany’s Thomas Dressen, surprisingly decided not to run the slalom leg.
Team-mate Aleksanderr Aamodt Kilde said the 35-year-old Svindal had been wary about damaging his knee, which he has had long-running problems with and had operated on last year.
“He has this knee, you know. So he tried on the warm-up but, you know, icy conditions, really, really bumpy, so he decided not to risk the other races by skiing slalom,” he said.
Early leader Dressen, who has little slalom pedigree, finished in ninth position on a day when organizers were delighted to finally get action underway following 48 hours of weather postponements.
With strong winds still a concern, the competition went ahead with an adjusted downhill stage, racing lower down the course at the designated super-G start and using the ‘blue wind line’ which made for easier jumps.
Dressen was first out and completed the course in one minute, 19.24 seconds and Hirscher, second down, was 1.32 seconds slower.
The winds soon whipped up and caused problems on the relatively benign jumps, however.
Russian Pavel Trikhichev and American Ryan Cochran-Siegle both crashed out after clipping gates.
Italian Peter Fill somehow managed to land safely when the wind caught him midway through a jump and forced him into an awkward position, but he later crashed out in the slalom.
Reporting by Simon Evans and Nick Mulvenney; Editing by John O'Brien