The United States finally won its first alpine skiing gold medal of the Sochi Olympics, as favorite Ted Ligety won the men's giant slalom, the eighth of the 10 events.
Like many alpine skiers who are favored at the Olympics because of their top results on the World Cup circuit, Ligety was expected to win the giant slalom at the Sochi Olympics. He is the reigning world champion and has won the World Cup season title in the discipline four times.
Giant Slalom gold medalist Ted Ligety of the US, Feb 19, 2014 (VOA - P. Brewer)
Ligety won the combined (downhill and slalom) gold medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics and was expected to win both the combined and giant slalom at the 2010 Vancouver Games, but failed to even get a medal.
"Ski racing is probably the least guaranteed sport out there, you know. It is really rare, actually, oftentimes when the favorites win. So far here, this is the first event that an actual favorite has really won," he said.
So it gave Ligety great joy to fulfill the expectations of him in Sochi.
"You know, I knew there was a lot of pressure on today, and I really wanted to perform and ski the way I knew I could ski and do what I wanted to do on skis. And have it equal a gold medal is truly awesome," he said.
Ligety is first American male to win two career gold medals in Olympic alpine skiing.
His combined time for the two giant slalom runs Wednesday (2:45.29) was nearly half a second faster than silver medalist Steve Missillier of France (2:45.77). Another Frenchman, Alex Pinturault took the bronze medal (2:45.93).
Former professional skier and extreme skiing pioneer Dan Egan, told VOA that Ligety won because his tactics and technique were superior.
"He has got this "skivit" move where he throws his skis sideways for a bit, skids, and then arcs right at the gate. That made his line perfect on the hardest part of the course where the holes [ruts in the snow] were the biggest. He was able to miss most of those holes. You saw that he had more snow contact with his skis than most of the other skiers on the hardest part of the course," he said.
In all, 109 skiers representing 62 National Olympic Committees competed in the men's giant slalom. They included many from nations who knew they had no chance at a medal but were proud to represent their countries.
One of them was 22-year-old Kanes Sucharitakul of Thailand. He told VOA he achieved his goal of finishing less than 30 seconds behind the winner, Ligety. He barely did it in 65th place at 29.77 seconds back (total of 3:15.06).
"The Olympic Games is not just about having the highest tier of athletes. If you really want top tier skiing you will go to World Cup or world championships," he said. "There, they are really top 500. Here, I feel it is more about representing your country to the best of your ability. And I feel much more national pride coming from the Olympics atmosphere in general."
Adam Lamhamedi, the Moroccan skier who finished 47th in the Giant Slalom, Feb 19, 2014 (VOA - P. Brewer)
Another skier in the lower half was Adam Lamhamedi of Morocco, whose father is Moroccan and mother is Canadian. He lives in Quebec City, has dual citizenship, makes regular trips to Morocco and loves it there. He won a super giant slalom gold medal at the Youth Winter Olympic Games in 2012. He placed 47th Wednesday.
"We have good racers, but the general thinking about it is, 'Oh, they are from a small country and it is easy for them to enter.' So I think it is just for the picture of it, like the image of the small nations," he said.
His younger brother is one of three Moroccan athletes in Sochi. Adam had the honor of being the flag bearer for Morocco at the Opening Ceremony. He said it was one of the best moments of his life.