McKee's McThoughts: Biggest medal of the night
A fast walking crowd headed to the entrances of the Planai stadium. Horns punctuated the crisp night air and loud Euro-disco music demanded attention from loud speakers both inside and out front where bars, replete with tented outdoor porches were throbbing with bouncing event fans. There was no doubt this was big.
Held without a men's medal of any color Austria's press was being downright cruel to the team representing its national sport and economic engine. “Gold for Svindal, Sheetmetal for Kroell” had screamed a headline after the men's downhill. English speaking television personalities were saying “heads will roll,” within the national ski federation. The German language folks were no less dramatic.
The general populous, those headed to seats in the stadium, were less severe. It is their sport and they enjoy good performance from any source. It's just a whole lot better when it's your guys winning medals.
After the sheetmetal race the faces exiting the stadium were dour. In 1982, the last time this blue collar city of Schladming had hosted the World Championships, the Austrians had not performed to expectations either. Hell, North Americans had swept the women's downhill. But the premier event, the men's downhill, had run last because of weather and the victory that day of Harti Weirather saved the day. If Marcel Hirscher has luck on his side and skis at his usual best, he will become the saviour of Schladming 2013.
In the combined event, the race our horn touting crowd was quick stepping to, the biggest local hopes were pinned on an aging Benjamin Raich and the downhill leg winner Romed Baumann.
The slalom course into the stadium glowed from floodlight reflecting off the ice. It is steep and the course set was challenging. It was a set-up demanding the kind of ski racing the extremely knowledgeable viewers could appreciate. It was a set up that looked to punished unreasonable risk.
Alexis Pinturault, the young French whiz, was so far back after the downhill leg he had little choice but to take unreasonable risks and he was the first to give this bobbing audience a performance worth hailing. He charged, he cut off the line, he did all of those little things that separate the best from the rest. It nearly caught up with him as he flew through the air, well out of the line but managed an athletic and skilled recovery. He had been so fast he took the lead by more than two seconds and recorded the fastest slalom leg of the night. It brought cheers.
As did the run of Swiss Sandro Viletta who had survived passing a worker on the downhill course to get to the night portion of the race. Cheered, too, was that of Finnish future star Andreas Romar who was dazzling in both heats as well.
Croatian Ivica Kostelic skied a measured slalom, attacking early and late but reducing risks on the steep. These fans have long appreciated the Kostelic skill set and applauded the lead taking effort. Ted Ligety's gold medal winning run, too, drew a roar of approval. It was the second fastest slalom run of the night behind Pinturault, and it was a showing of gifted racing. It was appreciated.
But this crowd stood for the final racer of the night, for its own. They stood with prayers of hope for Romed Baumann, the fastest man of the downhill and a solid combined competitor.
Baumann delivered everything he had and though he could not hope to unseat the leader he sure as heck tried. His lead dwindled from .72 at the start to .42. At the interval above the stadium the green turned red. The anxiety in the stadium and in the surrounding streets where the bars were vibrating shot through the roof into the cold night sky. It was going to be close.
Baumann finished two hundredths behind Kostelic and .17 ahead of Romar for the bronze medal. The noise was amazing, easily the loudest of the championships to date. It wasn't gold, but it was a medal and that was an enormous relief. The skiing nation had shown its teeth.
Leaving the stadium the streets pulsed and smelled like spilled Schladminger, the local brew. Baumann's medal was big in these parts. Very big. "Danke Romed" was the next morning's headline. - Hank McKee