Matt jumps out to early lead in Olympic slalom
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) One racer called the course ''borderline unsportsmanlike.'' Another said it was ''brutal.'' Five of the top eight skiers in the opening leg failed to even finish the second.
Leave it to 34-year-old Mario Matt to handle the tough gates and soft snow better than anyone. The Austrian veteran added a safe second run to his fantastic first run, and won the Olympic slalom Saturday night to become the oldest Alpine gold medalist in Winter Games history.
''We are used to tricky course-setting,'' Matt said, ''but today, I have to say, it was a lot.''
In the last Alpine event, Matt's combined time of 1 minute, 41.84 seconds allowed him to edge the runner-up, Austrian teammate Marcel Hirscher, by 0.28 seconds. They raised their ski-loving country's total to an Alpine-leading nine medals in Sochi, quite a turnaround after only four - zero for the men - at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
''For us,'' said Hans Pum, sports director of the Austrian ski federation, ''it's perfect.''
The bronze went to 19-year-old Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway, the youngest man with an Olympic Alpine medal. He was only 15th-fastest in the opening leg but was superb under the artificial lights at night to move up while plenty of men fell.
He actually was delighted to see gate placements by Ante Kostelic, the father of ninth-place finisher Ivica Kostelic of Croatia and a man known for his challenging and unorthodox designs.
''I was really disappointed after the first run, but when I saw the course ... I thought that I might have a chance,'' Kristoffersen said, ''so thank you, Ante Kostelic.''
Not many shared that sentiment.
Ted Ligety, the American who won the giant slalom Wednesday, was sixth after the slalom's first run but skied out less than halfway through the second.
''The snow is just really bad, and Ante set a really difficult, `typical Ante' course set, which is borderline unsportsmanlike,'' Ligety said. ''But that's how it goes. Everybody had to ski it.''
Of the 30 who were fastest in the first run, 13 didn't finish or were disqualified in the second.
''The course set is within the rules. I think it draws an ethical question when you have a dad setting for a son - not that Ivica ever does well in his dad's sets,'' Ligety said. ''But this is the Olympics. You're trying to showcase our sport to the rest of the world. And I don't think this does us any favors.''
U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick said the course ''didn't have any flow,'' because of gates placed at seemingly random intervals and odd angles.
''It challenged the athletes in ways that they normally don't train or see,'' Rearick said. ''Today, the course set got into ... people's heads.''
Ante Kostelic watched the race from near the finish line, smiling. Asked by a reporter about the course, he said, ''I'm a sportsman,'' and referenced the Olympic motto of ''faster, higher, stronger'' before walking away.
His son Ivica, the silver medalist in the Sochi super-combined, said of Saturday's setup: ''Even if it is negative, it is good for skiing. It was a spectacle for the spectators.''
He said he told his dad after the first run not to hold back when setting the second.
''We are looking for the Olympic champion,'' Ivica said, ''not the school champion.''
Matt now has an Olympic medal 13 years after winning the first of his two slalom world championships.
He'll turn 35 in April, making him a few months older than Norwegian great Kjetil Andre Aamodt was when he won the 2006 super-G.
Thinking back to his 2001 world title, Matt said: ''I was very young then. It somehow happened automatically. Then I was hurt, and my injuries forced me to start all over. ... I had to fight my way back up.''
He didn't even race for Austria at the Vancouver Games four years ago. More recently, Matt went more than two years without a World Cup victory until ending that drought in Val d'Isere, France, in December.
On Saturday, he lost a full second of his lead over Hirscher in the second run, then seemed stunned when he crossed the finish line and his time was good enough.
''This is a well-earned victory. Let's face it, he was faster,'' said Hirscher, the two-time overall World Cup champion who had finished fourth twice and fifth once in previous Olympic races.
Hirscher came into the day as the favorite.
Matt, though, ended it with the gold.
''He was one of the first guys to arc slalom turns and do it with consistency,'' Rearick said. ''For him to come back and win World Cup races, win championships and then to finish off by winning a gold medal here - he's a tremendous competitor, a game-day guy.''
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich