BORMIO, Italy (AP) — Regaining his health from a series of injuries and falls, German skier Felix Neureuther announced himself as a medal contender for the Sochi Olympics by edging first-run leader Marcel Hirscher to win a World Cup slalom Monday night.
Then Neureuther used the spotlight to announce his opposition to Russia's human rights record and a recent law banning gay "propaganda" in the Olympic host country. He also criticized the choice of Pyeongchang, South Korea, to host the 2018 Winter Games.
"It's not right," Neureuther said. "The guys from the IOC should think about where to put the Olympic Games. It's not right to give the Olympic Games to places where they are giving the most money. It should be about the sport, in nations where there is passion."
Neureuther is from the well-known Alpine resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. He is the son of 1976 Olympic champion Rosi Mittermaier and Christian Neureuther, a six-time winner on the World Cup circuit.
The younger Neureuther now also has six career wins. And this victory was a major achievement considering what he's gone through over the past year. Neureuther had ankle surgery in June and was off skis until the end of September. Then he tumbled head over heels during the second run of a race in Levi, Finland, in November and hurt his knee.
Neureuther had another crash while training in Alta Badia last month, dislocating his thumb and hurting his back. "Now I'm healthy," he said. "But I still have some big problems with my thumb. This will take some more weeks. I hope when there is the slalom in Sochi it will be good."
The Sochi Games start Feb. 7 and the men's slalom on Feb. 22 is the final skiing event. Neureuther said that he would not make any protests when in Sochi. Trailing by just 0.01 after the opening run, Neureuther attacked from start to finish in his second trip down the Stelvio course for a two-leg combined time of 1 minute, 59.75 seconds.
"I was really pushing hard," he said. Hirscher, the two-time defending overall World Cup winner from Austria, finished second, 0.36 seconds behind, and Manfred Moelgg of Italy moved up from sixth after the opening run to place third, 0.65 back.
Naoki Yuasa of Japan had the fastest second run and jumped from 21st to fourth. The race was moved from Zagreb due to lack of snow in Croatia. The course was about five or six seconds longer than most slaloms. Neureuther's coach, Hans Wallner, set the second run.
"It's a little long and it's very turny but it's not a very challenging course," Hirscher said. "The terrain is too easy to create big gaps." Moelgg qualified for Italy's Olympic team with his first podium of the season.
"This was a very important podium," he said. "Today I really attacked how I wanted to." While clearly disappointed not to win, Hirscher still gained ground on overall leader Aksel Lund Svindal, who doesn't often race slalom and sat this race out. Svindal's lead over Hirscher was cut from 195 to 115 points. American giant slalom specialist Ted Ligety is third overall, 297 points back.
It was a tough day for Ligety. He bloodied his nose after a gate snapped up and hit him in the face during the pre-race warmup then was 14th in the opening run. In the second run, Ligety fell toward the bottom of the course. He got back up but finished 27th — last place among those who finished both runs.
"I skied relatively well in sections, I just made some mistakes here and there," Ligety said. "And this hill is so flat you definitely pay on those little mistakes." Ligety recently returned to Europe from a mid-season break back home in Park City, Utah.
"You don't even really get recovered from jet lag when you're only home for four days," he said. "But it was nice to be home and see friends and family." Ligety needed a few stitches to close the cut on his nose.
"I got a gate back up in the face. It went off my leg and smashed me in the nose," he said. "There was a good blood mark up on the training hill." The top American finisher was David Chodounsky of Crested Butte, Colorado, in 15th.
Christian Deville of Italy also lost control in the second run and got popped up into the air and fell hard on his back and the back of his head. He appeared to avoid major injury, though. Markus Larsson of Sweden and Alexis Pinturault of France were disqualified for straddling gates in the first run.
The men's circuit goes to Adelboden, Switzerland, for a giant slalom and slalom next weekend.
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