Ice cool Strobl takes downhill gold
Hermann Maier (AUT), who had been the best downhill skier in the four years since the Nagano Winter Games in 1998, was a notable absence in Salt Lake City. The Austrian was not just hugely charismatic but also, on his day, exceptionally fast. He had won the 1999 World Championship title and the 2001 World Cup, and was widely tipped to be one of the favourites for the 2002 Olympic title.
Maier was no stranger to crashes. His skiing style was all about throwing himself into courses with total effort. Ironically, it was a crash that took place away from the slopes that put paid to his Olympic hopes. In August 2001 he was involved in a serious motorbike accident that nearly resulted in his leg having to be amputated. Thanks to skilful surgery his leg was saved, but it was doubtful that he would ever ski again, let alone be ready for the 2002 Games. Maier had produced some extraordinary achievements in the past, but a miracle recovery in time to compete was beyond him.
In his absence, the favourite’s mantle passed to another Austrian, Stephan Eberharter, who had won five of that season's eight World Cup races. Eberharter was the ninth skier out of the gate and he immediately went into the lead with a time of 1 minute 39.41 seconds.
Next to ski was another Austrian, Fritz Strobl. Strobl had never won a major title, but had enjoyed an excellent year in the World Cup during the run-up to the Games, climbing to second place in the standings. In contrast to Maier, he was known for calm approach, and he established a smooth momentum on the piste. Faster than Eberharter at each of the splits, he crossed the line in first position, some 0.28 seconds quicker.
Norway's Lasse Kjus then split the two with a time of 1 minute 39.35 seconds, which left him 0.22 seconds behind Strobl, but “Felix the Cat” was not to be denied. As for Maier, he defied all medical predictions to recover sufficiently so that he was not only able to walk again, but also get back onto his skis. And his comeback was such that he qualified for the 2006 Games in Turin, where he finished the downhill in sixth place.