PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Aksel Lund Svindal threw his battered body down the Jeongseon slope in thrilling style to cap a brilliant career with Norway’s first Olympic downhill gold medal on Thursday, becoming the oldest Alpine skiing champion in the history of the Games.
The 35-year-old’s team mate, rival and friend Kjetil Jansrud celebrated with Svindal as the backrunners continued to come down the course after taking silver for a Norwegian 1-2, while world champion Beat Feuz won bronze for Switzerland.
Norwegians, including Svindal in 2010 and Jansrud in 2014, have finished on the podium in five of the last six Olympic downhills but none had previously claimed the biggest prize in Alpine speed racing.
A year after undergoing more surgery on a body that has had more than its fair share of injuries, however, Svindal stormed down the bottom half of the Pyeongchang piste to erase the anomaly in one minute, 40.25 seconds.
“It feels pretty good. I‘m extremely happy,” he said.
“It’s one of those things where you keep looking up the hill because I want to make sure it’s real, like no one comes and skis faster. But this is fine.”
Jansrud’s loss of control on the final jump probably cost him the gold as he finished 0.12 seconds behind his team mate in 1:40.37, with Feuz third in 1:40.43.
“I‘m really proud to have got this medal,” Feuz said. “To lose to these two Norwegians is no problem, they have been on top for years. Aksel has been hurt several times and he’s still extremely dangerous.”
After nearly a week of high winds wreaking havoc with the Alpine skiing schedule, the blue riband event of the program finally got underway four days late in almost perfect conditions.
The course, designed by Swiss 1972 Olympic champion Bernhard Russi, was supposed to be easier than some of the classic downhill runs but with little room for error.
Error-free skiing is Feuz’s stock-in-trade and although he trailed pace-setter Dominik Paris at the top of the run, he built up speed in the mid section and raced home to lead.
Svindal, though, showed that five days of polishing from gale force winds had sped up the run, and he was able to take a wide line on one corner and survive a minor wobble through one of the jumps and still be competitive at the top.
His creaking, much-reconstructed knee was up to the task and he powered through the bottom half of the course in his trademark style to knock Feuz off the top of the timesheets.
“He showed at the bottom, where he is strength is, in the high-speed turns, to keep the speed, that is why he is number one,” Norway Alpine team director Claus Ryste told reporters.
Jansrud’s run was almost the polar opposite to his compatriot’s as he attacked the top section with relish to take a couple of tenths of a second off Svindal’s time, only to lose control at the death.
The 32-year-old knew he had blown it and his body language after crossing the line contrasted starkly with a visible sigh of relief from Svindal waiting under the scoreboard.
“I knew I had to do something special today to catch it up and it almost worked out according to plan,” said Jansrud, who will return to defend his super-G title on Friday.
“I think I lost too much time at the bottom against Aksel but I‘m still very happy.”
Sochi gold medalist Matthias Mayer of Austria finished well off the pace in ninth, continuing the ‘curse’ of the downhill which has seen no one repeat as champion in the 70 years of Olympic competition.
Italian Paris finished fourth with German Thomas Dressen in fifth and both joined other rivals in hailing Svindal.
“I think there is no bigger role model than Svindal,” said Dressen, a World Cup winner in Kitzbuehel last month. “I think it’s incredible what he’s achieved.”
Svindal’s win made him the first man to have won both the downhill and super-G gold medals at the Olympics and he surpassed Austrian Mario Matt, who won slalom gold in Sochi at the age of 34, as the oldest Alpine skiing champion.
“Being at the Olympics and competing for gold, for me at least, those feelings are way stronger than any history ever written,” he added. “Honestly, I didn’t care about that at all, I just wanted to win.”
List of milestones reached by Aksel Lund Svindal
Editing by John O'Brien