Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For Swiss, an Olympic Skiing Gold Is Good - Beating Austria Makes It Great

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For Swiss, an Olympic Skiing Gold Is Good - Beating Austria Makes It Great

Article excerpt

One of the Winter Olympics' best rivalries - the Swiss vs. the Austrians in alpine skiing - has been one-sided in recent years. But a gold Monday and the promise of another Tuesday shows Switzerland is making a comeback.

When Swiss alpine skier Didier Defago won the men's downhill Monday, Michael Leuenberger was happy.

When no Austrian joined Defago on the podium, Leuenberger was ecstatic.

Yes, it was important that Switzerland won gold. But only slight less important was that it beat its Alpine neighbor, Austria.

"It matters," said Leuenberger, a Swiss fan from Bern wearing the signature Swiss cross on every available piece of clothing.

Within the Winter Olympics, a constellation of rivalries lend many events added drama, whether it's US vs. Canada in women's hockey or China vs. South Korea in short track speed skating.

For more than two decades, though, the rivalry between the two Alpine nations at the heart of alpine skiing has been a colossal mismatch. Since 1988, Austria has won 28 Olympic alpine skiing medals, including nine golds. In that same time, Switzerland has won five medals, none gold.

But this year has witnessed the renaissance of men's Swiss alpine skiing, and Monday's downhill confirmed it. At long last, Switzerland has turned the tables on its historic rival, and Tuesday, it could provide the exclamation point with a win in the men's combined.

For Austria, Switzerland's success "sticks in their craw like you wouldn't believe," says Steven Threndyle, a journalist who has covered the World Cup circuit for several Canadian publications.

Austria uber alles

On one hand, Austrians are outraged by the success of any nation but their own. And for good reason. No nation in the Winter Olympics has dominated a single sport as thoroughly as Austria has dominated alpine skiing. Since 1936, its men and women have won 30 Olympic alpine gold medals, almost one-quarter of all the golds awarded in the sport.

But the Austrian-Swiss rivalry holds a special place.

First, it is Switzerland than has provided Austria with its greatest competition, historically. The Swiss are No. 2 on the all- time Olympic gold medal table, with 16.

Moreover, as the two European nations that sit astride the Alps, they are the stewards of the deepest traditions of alpine skiing.

Austria boasts Kitzbuhel and its legendary Hahnenkamm downhill. Hahnenkamm's Streif course is considered the most difficult downhill in the world. Meanwhile, Switzerland is home to the "Super Bowl" of alpine skiing: Wengen's Lauberhorn course, which is the longest downhill race on the World Cup circuit and arguably more anticipated than the Olympics.

Yet for all the similarities of tradition and location, Switzerland has rarely been able to match the might of Team Austria - and the gap had only widened in recent years.

"There is probably some tension because we are similar countries. …

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