When no Austrian joined Defago on the podium, Leuenberger was ecstatic.
“It matters,” said Leuenberger, a Swiss fan from Bern wearing the signature Swiss cross on every available piece of clothing.
For more than two decades, though, the rivalry between the two Alpine nations at the heart of alpine skiing has been a colossal mismatch. Since 1988, Austria has won 28 Olympic alpine skiing medals, including nine golds. In that same time, Switzerland has won five medals, none gold.
But this year has witnessed the renaissance of men’s Swiss alpine skiing, and Monday’s downhill confirmed it. At long last, Switzerland has turned the tables on its historic rival, and Tuesday, it could provide the exclamation point with a win in the men’s combined.
Austria über alles
On one hand, Austrians are outraged by the success of any nation but their own. And for good reason. No nation in the Winter Olympics has dominated a single sport as thoroughly as Austria has dominated alpine skiing. Since 1936, its men and women have won 30 Olympic alpine gold medals, almost one-quarter of all the golds awarded in the sport.
But the Austrian-Swiss rivalry holds a special place.
First, it is Switzerland than has provided Austria with its greatest competition, historically. The Swiss are No. 2 on the all-time Olympic gold medal table, with 16.
Moreover, as the two European nations that sit astride the Alps, they are the stewards of the deepest traditions of alpine skiing.
Austria boasts Kitzbühel and its legendary Hahnenkamm downhill. Hahnenkamm’s Streif course is considered the most difficult downhill in the world. Meanwhile, Switzerland is home to the “Super Bowl” of alpine skiing: Wengen’s Lauberhorn course, which is the longest downhill race on the World Cup circuit and arguably more anticipated than the Olympics.
Yet for all the similarities of tradition and location, Switzerland has rarely been able to match the might of Team Austria – and the gap had only widened in recent years.
“There is probably some tension because we are similar countries.… [but] for many years now, it’s the Austrians that have been dominant,” says Sandra Kühni, journalist for the International Ski Federation (FIS) who regularly covers the World Cup.
Austria's advantage – no more?
The difference was how Austria molded young talent, says Charley Pichler, a coach for the Austrian women’s Olympic team.
Austria’s system of ski academies makes it easier to develop as a top racer, he says. Though parents have to pay for accommodations, the schools are free. There are six for 10- to 14-year-olds and another half-dozen or so for older teens.
“That’s the reason we have so many racers,” says Pichler.
Now, Switzerland is doing the same. In the past few years, Swiss officials changed the structure of their system, with three ski academies. Previously, promising young Swiss skiers had to go to Austrian academies, at a cost of about $30,000 per year.
“They put a lot of thought on how to connect regional level to national level,” says Kühni.
“The success of the Swiss men’s team is not surprising if you had been following it for the past few years,” she adds. “There have been young ones coming up.”
The top young Swiss is Carlo Janka, nicknamed “the Iceman” for his calm style on the slope and his unflappable demeanor off it. He was a favorite for Tuesday’s combined, a race that combines one run of downhill with one run of slalom, but the race was postponed.
Currently second in the race for the World Cup overall title, Janka could become the first Swiss to win it since 1992. By contrast, seven Austrians have won the overall title since then (and an Austrian is currently first).
But this could be Janka’s year. He won three World Cup races on three consecutive days earlier this season – the first man to do that since Jean-Claude Killy in 1967. He also won on the Lauberhorn course.
A year to remember
It is the contribution of Switzerland’s veterans, though, that has made this an extraordinary year for the country’s alpine team.
Defago became the oldest men’s downhill champion in Winter Olympic history Monday, and Didier Cuche leads the downhill standings on the World Cup circuit. He and Janka are the only two skiers to have won two downhills this season.
Even in a year when Swiss tennis star Roger Federer set a record by winning his 15th Grand Slam title, Swiss media and fans named Cuche the country’s top sports star in 2009.
It was only Cuche’s 6th-place finish in this, his last Olympic downhill Monday, that dampened Swiss celebrations.
“It’s sad for him,” says Leuenberger. “He’s a fighter, and he was very successful, especially when the Swiss team wasn’t doing very well.”
“That would have been a very big win,” he adds.
At least he has Defago’s gold as consolation.
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