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Marcel Hirscher: The greatest ski racer of all time?

Posted at 3:27 AM, Feb 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-18 04:52:30-05

How do you judge greatness in sport? Can you even compare athletes from different eras? Two classic bar room topics with no finite answers.

In skiing, all the talk this season has been about Lindsey Vonn’s quest to pass Ingemar Stenmark as the most successful racer of all time.

Given Vonn’s early retirement through injury, Stenmark’s 86 World Cup race wins remains the benchmark, but perhaps there is another measure of greatness. How about being the best in the business for eight years running?

If so, Austria’s Marcel Hirscher is already history’s best ski racer. The 29-year-old has 68 wins and counting and is closing in on an unprecedented eighth straight World Cup overall crown — for the skier who amasses the most points across all disciplines over the season.

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By comparison, double Olympic champion Stenmark — a Swedish icon alongside tennis great Bjorn Borg in the late 1970s and early 1980s — only won the overall title three times.

So while Hirscher’s name may not transcend skiing in the way that Vonn has — for any number of cultural and sociological reasons — he deserves to be recognised as one of sport’s greatest exponents.

“I would place him in same range as Stenmark,” Peter Schrocksnadel, veteran head of the Austrian Ski Federation, told CNN Sport in Kitzbuhel at the annual Hahnekamm races in January.

“He could make it (the record) — maybe he doesn’t want to make it — but I think he’s in that range. At least.”

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Supreme focus

Hirscher, like Stenmark, is a technical expert, excelling in the rhythmic dance of slalom and giant slalom rather than the brute power and bravado of the speed events.

His poise under pressure, and ability to find speed even on the most intricate of courses is legendary. His nearest rival in recent seasons, Henrik Kristoffersen, can attest to the almost supernatural power of Hirscher’s second-run charges.

This season he has again been stellar, trading regular victories with fellow phenom Mikaela Shiffrin, who could yet eclipse everybody.

But with 10 wins so far this term, Hirscher is marching inexorably towards Stenmark’s total tally.

At February’s World Championships in Sweden, Hirscher won his third slalom title for a record-equaling seventh world crown in all disciplines.

Back home in skiing-mad Austria, Hirscher has been a bona fide superstar for years. As a product of his millennial generation, he has a huge social media fan base, following his life in skiing, fitness, car racing, motorbikes and beyond. He even has his own magazine called “Heroes.”

Such is his popularity and fame — eclipsing Bayern Munich star David Alaba or tennis player Dominic Thiem — that even going out in public is problematic, according to journalist Florian Madl of Innsbruck-based daily paper Tiroler Tageszeitung.

“He won’t walk down the street,” Madl told CNN in Kitzbuhel. “It would take 20 minutes to do what should take him 20 seconds.”

Hirscher is a five-time Austrian Sports Personality of the Year and was recently named “Champion of Champions” for 2018 by French newspaper L’Equipe, joining sporting greats such as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Usain Bolt and Lionel Messi to have been honored.

In January, Eurosport named him Sportsman of the Year, ahead of fellow nominees such as Novak Djokovic, Simone Biles and Lewis Hamilton.

“What makes Marcel so great? It’s himself,” added Schrocksnadel.

“He’s the most focused skier I know, since ever, and I’ve been in the business a long time. He doesn’t care how many first places he has, he wants to win the next one, that’s his focus.”

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‘Hates to lose’

According to Hirscher, his body shape is the “perfect symmetry” for ski racing — not too small or tall and a good weight, and with “good genes” — but he believes his secret is his attention to detail.

And he always credits the team around him for his success. “I am not the better skier,” he says. “With my team, I am able to have my equipment on point.” But if it was just having the right gear, others could be as good.

Madl added: “He can’t lose. And he cannot hide that he can’t lose. While someone else is sleeping or relaxing he still picks on things like technique, or bindings or ski material or edge grip or whatever. There’s nearly no spare time, he uses all the time for his focus.”

Austria has spawned many men’s ski greats over the years, including the late Toni Sailer, a seven-time world champion and triple Olympic gold medalist in 1956. Then there’s speed merchant Hermann Maier, a four-time World Cup overall winner and double Olympic champion.

But another Austrian legend Franz Klammer says comparisons are worthless, given different events, conditions, equipment, physical fitness, nutrition, competition and other factors.

“It’s different, you cannot compare Toni Sailer with Marcel Hirscher,” Klammer, the five-time World Cup downhill champion and 1976 OIympic downhill gold medallist, told CNN in Kitzbuhel.

“They are different times, different situations — downhill skiers are different to slalom skiers. But Hirscher is definitely one of the best ever.”

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If Hirscher has been impressive this season, last year’s achievements were arguably more remarkable. He broke his ankle on his first training day on snow in August 2017, fearing his dreams of Olympic glory — even his career — could be over.

But racing with no pressure, he blew away Kristoffersen, and stormed to 13 wins on the World Cup circuit as well as clinching his first Olympic gold medals, clinching the giant slalom and combined in Pyeongchang.

In his regular blog at the end of last season, Hirscher quashed rumours he would switch to the speed disciplines to refresh his motivation.

But when he married his partner Laura last summer and the couple welcomed their first child — a boy — in the autumn, many observers thought ski racing would be pushed into the background.

However, if this season is anything to go by, Hirscher’s fire remains very much lit. And with the gap to Stenmark’s haul of wins shrinking quickly, there is every reason to expect Hirscher to become the G.O.A.T.