Mahre twins master the elements to claim giant slalom one-two
The Mahre twins were bound for Olympic destiny from the moment they were born in the White Pass Ski area in Washington, where their father was mountain manager. The brothers showed such promise on the slopes as children that ski equipment companies offered sponsorship and clamoured to supply them with free equipment.
They arrived on to the World Cup scene in 1975 when Phil made his debut aged 18. A year later competed for his country at the Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. Later that year he won his first World Cup race in the giant slalom at Val d’Isere, France. He finished the 1978 season in second place, and placed third in 1979 and 1980.
Phil went on to be overall World Cup champion from 1981 to 1983, but Steve – the younger of the brothers by a four-minute margin – was hard on his heels, placing fourth in 1981 and third in 1982.
The brothers arrived in Sarajevo in 1984 as favourites in the giant slalom competitions after the event’s two dominating figures, Ingemar Stenmark and Marc Girardelli, were sidelined.
Stenemark – the world’s greatest slalom skier – was disallowed from the competition as he was deemed a professional competitor, while Girardelli missed out because he was Austrian but competed for Luxembourg.
But despite the path to gold being cleared for the American twins, few rated their chances. The pair had had a disastrous World Cup season the year before, with Steve finishing in 45th place and Phil 62nd. In the giant slalom race in Sarajevo they finished eight and 17th. After a decade of competition, their best days were thought to be behind them.
Matters were made worse ahead of the Winter Games in February when Phil Mahre told journalists he was ambivalent about winning a medal in Yugoslavia, and was happy simply to compete.
Parts of the US media reacted furiously to his frank admission – ironically a reflection of founder of the modern Olympic Movement, Baron de Coubertin’s idealistic attitude to sport – and condemned the skier for failing to exhibit an all-or-nothing view.
But sport has a habit of producing shocks, and the slalom course on Mount Bjelasnica was to provide the setting for one such upset. As the competition got underway it quickly became clear the course was a treacherous one. Fortunately for the Mahre brothers, their form had miraculously returned.
Of the 101 skiers on the mountain just 47 completed both their runs – including the Mahres.
Steve led the pack after a flawless first run, finishing a half second ahead of Sweden’s Jonas Nilsson, with Phil in third place. But Phil was catapulted into the lead after a near-perfect second attempt, while Nilsson faltered and dropped out of medal contention.
At the bottom of the course he grabbed a radio and relayed advice to his twin as he prepared for his next run in the hope it would clinch gold for him.
But Phil’s good intentions backfired – and instead of opting for a safe run Steve attacked the tricky course. A series of errors cost him first place – which went instead to his brother. After the race Phil learned his wife Holly had given birth to their second child an hour before he raced – capping a momentous day.
After their medal one-two the younger brother joked to reporters: “Phil was born four minutes ahead of me – I've been chasing him ever since.”