With Hermann Maier away from the Salt Lake City Games because of injury, most observers expected Stephan Eberharter to step into the spotlight and become the next Austrian alpine skiing superstar. Maier was still recovering from leg surgery suffered in a motorcycle crash by the time the 2002 Games came around, and Eberharter looked the heir apparent as he dominated the World Cup standings going into the Winter Olympic Games.
Yet few events of such calibre throw up quite so many surprises as the men’s downhill. Sun beat down on the Snowbasin’s Grizzly course in Utah and all eyes were on the winding 2.9km descent.
Eberharter showed his early season was no fluke by laying down the gauntlet with a slick run of one minute 39.41 seconds.
But Fritz Strobl (Austria) left the starting gate in brilliant sunshine and barely put a foot wrong in the next one minute 39.15 seconds to take the lead from his team-mate. Once the spray of snow cleared as he stopped at the bottom of the course, Strobl looked up at the scoreboard and punched the air with delight. Norway’s Lasse Kjus slightly bettered Eberharter’s time to repeat the silver he had won in the same event four years previously in Nagano.
It was to prove the undoubted career highlight of Strobl, who retired from international competition five years later at the age of 34.
Eberharter gained some consolation later in the Games though. Another Norwegian, this time Kjetil Andre Aamodt, edged him into silver in the super-G but glory finally came in the giant slalom when he won gold, and completed the set of medals, in the giant slalom.