Gods that Failed

When the Austrian “Wunderteam” finishes last, it’s a national disaster; here fans don’t hope for success, they demand it

On The Town | Christian Cummins | March 2010

There were great Austrian success stories at the Vancouver Olympics, including glorious team golds for the ski jumpers. But, for many Austrians, the relative failure of the men’s Alpine ski team has been a dominant theme of these Games.

After all, Austria is the self-proclaimed  "Number 1" ski nation, and for much of the past decade the red-white-red domination of the podium places has been so clear that coaches have often joked of the men’s major ski races as "Austrian championships with international participation." For most ski fans, the glory days are still recent memories. Even for me. I spent a headache-inducing two weeks in the Austria House in Sestriere, watching the record harvest of 14 Alpine medals during the Turin games four years ago.

But in the first four men’s races in Vancouver, the Austrian skiers finished outside of the podium places. A disaster! There was more than precious metal at stake: This was a question of national identity.

Watching the races on big screens in the bars and huts of Austria this time around, I witnessed a confident nation of ski fans gradually sink into depression. The first failure hurt enough - in the blue-ribboned Downhill event on the Dave Murray course. A collective gasp of disbelief swept my Innsbruck bar, as Turin silver medalist and pre-race favorite Michael Walchhofer finished way off the pace after an error-strewn race.

The wound only grew after Austria’s superstar skiers also left the second event, the Super G, empty handed. The speed events have traditionally been happy hunting ground for Austria’s prolific racers. Commentating on Austrian television, Oliver Polzer bitterly joked that Austria had become "a nation of tobogganers" following the victory of the remarkable Linger brothers in the Luge event the previous evening.

There were no medals again in the Combined event, and already the talk was of a curse, but hopes of redemption were pinned on the Giant Slalom where an Austrian had taken gold for the past three Olympics.

But the second run descended into nightmarish fiasco. Romed Baumann, second after the first run, slipped out of the reckoning to fifth. Benjamin Raich, the defending champion, managed to get his arm hooked on a control gate and slipped out of contention. And 20-year-old Marcel Hirscher was piped to bronze at the very last minute. To quote one of my favorite Austrian adages, "bad luck had followed misfortune." As the Swiss shooting star Carlo Janka was still celebrating gold in the finish area, the tones droning from the Austrian commentary box were almost funereal.

And the mood was no brighter in my bar.

"What’s going on?" asked the grey-bearded man sharing my table. He shook his head and stared gloomily into his beer. It was unbelievable: The Austrians had finished 4th, 5th and 6th. "That’s the worst possible punishment at Olympic Games."

A swashbuckling victory in the women’s Super-G for Andrea Fischbacher did manage to bring some light into the gloom and perma-grinning Elisabeth Görgl pitched in with a couple of plucky bronzes in the ladies’ Downhill and Giant Slalom. But (and I offer no excuses or explanations for this) it’s the men’s team that really seems to touch the soul of the nation. To illustrate, I need only to point out that Michaela Dorfmeister and Petra Kronberger both won more Olympic medals than Franz Klammer.

Successful women skiers were considered a consolation, but not a redemption, at least where I was drinking.

"It’s a national humiliation!" moaned my friend Fredi, as we looked at the post Giant Slalom headlines over morning coffee. The boys from the Austrian Ski Federation (ÖSV) were still being touted as the "Wunderteam" in the U.S. press as the games began, and now he felt the world must have been laughing at Austria’s expense. I tried to console him, by telling him that I doubted if anyone beyond Switzerland had even given the subject a passing thought, but my words fell on death ears. It was like trying to tell a New Zealander that rugby is just a game or a Canadian that their ice-hockey loss to the U.S.A. was of no importance.

I tried a different tack, stressing the difference between a crisis and a string of bad results. Austrian men have dominated the slalom all winter, Walchhofer is the leader in the World Cup Super-G standings, and Benjamin Raich is still the top favorite to win the Overall World Cup title. But the ÖSV is the best-organized and best-funded team in the sport, and the fans don’t hope for success – they demand it.

Now that ski super star Hermann Maier has recently followed previous Olympic Gold medalists Stefan Eberharter and Fritz Strobl into retirement, a nation spoiled by success expects a new generation to emulate their super human results and wants answers when they don’t.

But maybe the expectations were part of the problem. U.S. skier Bode Miller, who won three medals in Vancouver, admitted to Die Presse that, although he wishes that ski sport had a similar high profile status in the American psyche as it does in the Austrian, he was relieved that he didn’t have the same pressure of expectation weighing on him as the ÖSV racers. Combination silver-medalist Ivica Kostelic from Croatia was less sympathetic. He told die Presse that the Austrians were so used to success that they had failed to notice the developments in their favorite sport. The ÖSV, he suggested, had been too self-absorbed to see the strides rivals have made.

Austria’s chief trainer Toni Giger has been thinking a lot about Hermann Maier recently, and pointed out that the conditions on the Olympic runs down Whistler Mountain would have suited the ‘Herminator’ perfectly. It’s a refrain I’ve heard a lot these past two weeks. And perhaps that encapsulates the problem: An obsession with past glory is unhealthy.

In sports, it doesn’t matter what you won yesterday. It’s today that counts, and the planning for tomorrow.

Other articles from this issue: