SCHLADMING, Austria (AP) — Six races, two bronze medals. On home snow, Austria is enduring its worst start to an Alpine skiing world championship in 26 years.
Similar to the 1987 worlds in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, the former "Wunder Team" failed to land any top-three finish in downhill or super-G. Romed Baumann placed third in Monday's super-combined, matching Nicole Hosp in the women's race, to avoid leaving the hosts totally empty-handed after the first week.
"Downhill into perplexity," was the headline in national daily Kurier, mirroring the disbelief of the ski-mad nation. "It was a disaster. Everyone was expecting a medal," Baumann said about the pressure on his and his teammates' shoulders.
Two years ago, Austria topped the medals table at the worlds in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, with four golds, three silvers and a bronze. In Schladming, Elisabeth Goergl lost her downhill and super-G titles, and defending champion Anna Fenninger was beaten in the super-combined. Reigning women's slalom champion Marlies Schild has only slim chances of defending her title in Saturday's race after being sidelined for two months because of a knee injury.
With the technical races coming up, pressure to save the nation's honor is building on Marcel Hirscher. The defending overall World Cup champion has 13 podiums this season, including six victories, all in giant slalom and slalom.
"Now only Marcel can save us," daily Kronen Zeitung wrote. In its quest for more medals, Austria will even field its strongest lineup — including Hirscher — for Tuesday's mixed team competition — a relatively new event that doesn't carry the same prestige as the individual races for most fans.
Many other nations, including the United States, are resting their best technical racers to avoid the risk of getting injured before the more appealing individual events. Ted Ligety, the super-G and super-combined world champion, won't start for the U.S. team.
Hirscher, however, said he was "really looking forward" to his first appearance at the worlds. "That race is equally important as the GS or the slalom," Hirscher said. "A team medal counts as much as an individual medal."
At the start of the championships, national ski federation president Peter Schroecksnadel said Austria was aiming for "the best world championships ever." Local organizers invested €70 million ($95 million) in recent years just to build courses and infrastructure for skiing's 13-day marquee event, hoping to showcase the best of Austrian skiing and attract tourists for years to come.
So far though, the visitors are the ones coming away with all the gold medals. The federation's Alpine director Hans Pum was confident that the host was heading into a more enjoyable second week. "We must stay calm and try to turn the match around in the second half," Pum said. "The tourist board is laughing because so many other nations are winning medals here. But Austria promotion is not our responsibility, we are here to be successful."
With a little bit more luck, Austria could have earned three more medals as Hannes Reichelt in super-G, Klaus Kroell in downhill and Michaela Kirchgasser in super-combined all just missed the podium by fractions of a second to finish fourth.
According to retired great Hermann Maier, however, it has not been just bad luck for Austria. "I think it's about time to question the team's environment, the officials, the coaches," Maier wrote Monday in comments on his sponsor's website.
"Instead of taking the pressure away from the team, they have made it bigger with all their unrealistic expectations," he said. According to Maier, the team's performance so far has reflected this season's achievements in the World Cup.
"This is the reality," said Maier, who won six medals including three golds at worlds between 1999 and 2005. "When we are honest with ourselves, we don't have any clear medal favorites now except for Anna Fenninger and Marcel Hirscher."
In Tuesday's team event, Austria will be eager to launch a turnaround in fortunes. Women's head coach Herbert Mandl stressed the impact of that race. "This event is the most important for our image," Mandl said. "If we lose the team event, then we've really lost."