After eight of the first 11 skiers and 18 of 49 total skied off course while two of his own athletes landed on the podium, Austrian speed coach Florian Winkler was forced to defend his course-setting for the women’s super-G after the race Saturday at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
The high attrition rate, coupled with the race being won by 24-year-old Austrian Anna Fenninger with Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch taking silver and another Austrian, Nicole Hosp, securing bronze, had some questioning whether the course was set to favor Austrian skiers.
Winkler denied the allegations.
“It’s a fair course,” Winkler told AFP. “It looked fiercer than it was.”
Course setters at the Olympics are determined by weighted lottery with each nation getting as many Ping-Pong balls as they have skiers in the Top 15 in the world.
Winkler, who won the super-G lottery, said that his goal was to shape a layout that would challenge skiers by forcing them to blend all-out speed skiing with a cerebral approach to linking the sections together. The number of athletes unable to do that came as a shock, particularly after watching six skiers in a row ski out at the start.
“It was our goal for the course,” Winkler told AFP. “Still fair, but you have to think a bit more. I was surprised by the number of girls who skied out. It was a day of mistakes for many. I think the best handled it really well, they showed how it’s done.”
Winkler added that if the Austrians had any advantage it was in that as high-ranked super-G performers on the World Cup, they drew later starting bibs and benefited from course reports.
This isn’t the first time that the Austrian coaches have been accused of bias when setting courses at the Games.
For years ago, American Lindsey Vonn went into the Vancouver Olympics as the World Cup leader in the super-G standings and as a heavy gold medal favorite. But the American star could manage just a bronze while unheralded Austrian, Andrea Fischbacher, was the surprise gold medalist.
After the competition, Vonn’s then-husband/coach Thomas Vonn, who finished ninth in the men’s super-G at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, accused Austrian coach Juergen Kriechbaum, who set the gates, of “Lindsey-proofing” the course. Kriechbaum, of course, vehemently denied the charge.
“You don’t make a course against one person,” he told AP at the time. “This is stupid. She’s good, but not so good that anyone would set it just to stop her.”
Fenninger brushed off any notion that she benefited from favoritism.
“It makes for a great story, but it’s the same for everyone,” she said.
Hosp, who won her second medal of the Games, added that there was “no accidental winner,” and that the podium was occupied by the women, “skied well and raced tactically.”
Olympic downhill gold medalist Dominique Gisin of Switzerland, one of the 18 who did not finish the super-G, echoed those sentiments.
“I don’t think it’s possible (to favor an athlete),” she said to AFP. “Anna is a truly overall skier, she has beautiful technique. It didn’t matter what course she was put on.”