JEONGSEON: ‘Attacking Viking’ Aksel Lund Svindal claimed gold in the blue riband event of the Olympic alpine skiing programme, the men’s downhill, on Thursday in a thrilling Norwegian one-two.
Svindal, 35 and coming to the end of a stellar career, clocked 1min 40.25sec down the 3km-long Jeongseon course to hand Norway its first ever Olympic downhill gold. He also became the oldest ever alpine skiing gold medallist.
“It feels pretty good. I’m extremely happy,” said Svindal. “World Cup wins, I’ve been there a few times and know how that feels, but this is different.
“It’s one of those things where you keep looking up the hill because I want to make sure it’s real, like no one comes and skis faster. But this is fine.”
The Norwegian colossus’ teammate Kjetil Jansrud claimed silver at 0.12sec, with Switzerland’s defending world champion Beat Feuz taking bronze (+0.18).
Svindal had predicted that it would be the established downhill skiers who would triumph on a course where many racers said it was easy enough to get down unscathed but very tough to maintain speed and a good line.
And so it proved as a host of the stockier racers adept at maximising speed in the gliding sections also managed slick manoeuvring over a couple of savage jumps that led straight into sharp turns.
The marquee race, postponed from Sunday because of high winds, is known as the ultimate test of raw speed, although the downhill thrills had been somewhat diluted on a course judged too tame by some of skiing’s daredevils.
Though it might not have the raw edges of Kitzbuehel’s dreaded Hahnenkamm, the toughest run on the World Cup circuit, racers still touched motoroway-coasting speeds of 125 kmh and launched themselves upwards of 40 metres on a couple of the jumps.
The boisterous crowd of a few thousand, including a vociferous Norwegian group of fans clanging bells, blowing horns and waving flags, were left gasping as the racers came down the sun-kissed course, carved into an ancient forest in a remote South Korean valley once known for its ginseng cultivation.
Predictions of a close race with the slightest deviation off line likely to be catastrophic for a podium look-in proved correct.
Svindal, who has won two World Cup downhills and one super-G this season, skated aggressively out of the start gate, reaching 100km/h in less than 10 seconds.
He fell behind Feuz’s second and third intermediate times after going wide on the first jump, but regrouped in the final run-in with a powerful display befitting a racer who won a medal of each colour in the 2010 Vancouver Games before flopping in Sochi.
A breathless Svindal suffering thigh-muscle burn pumped the air as he swept into the finish area, a quick look at the leader board showing his name above that of Feuz.
With bib number seven, Svindal then had to endure a nerve-wracking wait as the rest of his rivals came down, notably Jansrud, who maintained Norway’s grip on the super-G with gold in Sochi alongside downhill bronze.
Then came the Austrian quartet, including defending Olympic champion Matthias Mayer, between bib numbers 11 and 17.
Mayer, however, went wide once and paid the immediate price, his disappointment obvious as he finished ninth, 1.21sec off Svindal’s pace.
And there was to be no dream Norwegian podium sweep as the third of the Attacking Vikings, Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, made a mistake halfway down after posting the fastest times up until then, eventually finishing 15th.