From Karl Schranz to Michael Walchhofer, the list of Austrians who have dominated in downhill stretches back nearly uninterrupted to the founding of the World Cup circuit in the late 1960s.
Now, though, skiing’s “Wunderteam” is facing a crisis in the speed disciplines that it has become accustomed to dominating.
With Walchhofer’s retirement at the end of last season, the Austrian men’s team features only one racer who has ever won a World Cup downhill — Klaus Kroell, with two — and it hasn’t won a single downhill or super-G with nearly a third of the season already gone.
By contrast, former greats Schranz (8), Franz Klammer (25), Hermann Maier (15), Stephan Eberharter (18) and Walchhofer (14) won a combined 80 downhills.
“[Fans and media] have to stop dreaming that we can win every downhill,” Austria head coach Mathias Berthold said. “You can’t just ignore the fact that we have the youngest team of all.”
Indeed, while Kroell and speed team co-leader Hannes Reichelt are each 31, a big group of Austrians in the their early 20s have been getting regular World Cup starts this season. They include Max Franz, Joachim Puchner, Matthias Mayer, Johannes Kroell, Otmar Striedinger, Manuel Kramer and Bjoern Sieber.
In the three super-G races this season, no Austrian has even finished on the podium, while in downhill, the best results were one third-place finish by Reichelt and two from Kroell.
“I am absolutely not satisfied with our performance in super-G,” Berthold said. “The team clearly has more potential, every athlete knows that. We have sensational split times, but guys like Reichelt throw it away by making stupid mistakes.”
Since skiing remains Austria’s top sport, the pressure is mounting heading into the season’s classic races in Wengen, Switzerland, and Kitzbuehel, Austria, this month.
“Obviously, they’re in a bit of a rebuilding phase now,” said American standout Bode Miller, who leads the downhill standings after three races. “They had such a strong, older team before.”
With rebuilding likely in mind, Walchhofer was called in to mentor the younger skiers on a trial basis for Thursday’s downhill in Bormio, which he won a record three times.
“He has a lot of experience and everyone can learn from him,” said Kroell, who finished third in Bormio.
Making matters worse is the fact that the Austrians have been continually losing to their biggest rivals in skiing’s most spectacular races lately.
Besides a downhill win for Miller in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and a super-G victory for Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal in Lake Louise, Alberta, most of the success has come from Swiss racers.
Olympic champion Didier Defago and Swiss teammate Patrick Kueng finished 1-2 in the Bormio downhill and Didier Cuche, Sandro Viletta and Beat Feuz have also won speed races for the Swiss flag this season.
“I would say maybe the Swiss is the new power,” downhill world champion Erik Guay of Canada said. “They have a very strong team and a lot of depth.”
Austria’s problems are not new, they’ve just been exposed more since Walchhofer’s retirement.
In 2009 to 2010, the Austrian men failed to win a downhill race all season and didn’t take home a single medal from the Vancouver Olympics.
Berthold, a World Cup slalom skier for Austria in the 1980s and 1990s who coached the German women’s team to two world titles in 2009 and three golds in Vancouver, replaced Toni Giger as Austria’s head coach shortly after the Olympic debacle.