KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — It’s been said, cynically, that a runner-up is the first loser, and Alpine skier Ivica Kostelic is rather familiar with the expression.
The Croatian has heard it plenty. Doesn’t like it one bit. Especially now that he is the only Olympian to earn a silver medal in the same individual event at three consecutive Winter Games, finishing second to surprise champion Sandro Viletta of Switzerland in the super-combined Friday.
“I could be anywhere. I could be in the hospital right now,” Kostelic said, referring to people less fortunate than him around the world. “So anyone who complains about silver or bronze doesn’t have the right to do so.”
Instead, it was Viletta who came through when it counted, something he’s not all that used to: In 100 career World Cup races, he has accumulated all of one victory. But after having only the 14th-best time in the morning’s downhill leg, he was second-best in the afternoon’s slalom as the sun slid behind the face of an adjacent mountain. His total time of 2 minutes, 45.20 seconds was 0.34 better than Kostelic.
“I know that I can ski fast, and I like this snow,” Viletta said, referring to the mushy conditions brought about by temperatures topping 50 degrees (10 degrees Celsius), “but I didn’t expect to win.”
Christof Innerhofer of Italy was 0.47 behind for the bronze, which he added to his silver from last weekend’s downhill. So at the moment, he alone owns twice as many medals from the 2014 Sochi Games as the entire U.S. Alpine contingent.
“Unbelievable,” Innerhofer said, before repeating the word — syllable by syllable, “Un-be-liev-a-ble!” — just in case his surprise and joy were not absolutely clear.
He was incredulous because he gave himself zero chance at a medal, knowing that as a speed specialist who focuses on downhill and the super-G, he never trains in the more technical slalom. And yet he matched Kostelic with a slalom of 51.37 seconds, the third-fastest time in that leg; Viletta, though, was more than a second faster.
Seems likely the U.S. ski team would like to have a medal or two of any color right about now. Through four of the 10 races on the schedule, the Americans have only one medal, Julia Mancuso’s super-combined bronze; they had six medals this far into the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, part of their Alpine-leading total of eight.
On Friday, Bode Miller was the defending champion in super-combined, having beaten Kostelic four years ago, but he was sixth this time. Ted Ligety won the event in 2006, again ahead of Kostelic, but he was 12th Friday, acknowledging, “To put it simply, I choked.”
The super-combined is intended as a measure of overall skill, by forcing skiers to be adept at two types of racing. At the 1936 Olympics, the first with Alpine skiing, the men’s and women’s combined were the only medal events.
But its importance has been diminished on the World Cup circuit, which no longer awards a season title in the discipline, and there’s even been some chatter about dropping it from the Olympic schedule one day.
Kostelic bristled when a reporter told him some members of Austria’s team wouldn’t miss the super-combined if it went away.
“The first thing is that the Austrians don’t feel like it because they’re not good at it,” Kostelic shot back. “The second thing is, in Alpine skiing, combined is the toughest discipline, because it connects two impossible things. It’s like a sprint and a mile run.”
He was just getting started.
Kostelic offered an impassioned defense of the super-combined — makes sense, given his repeated success — and said anyone who would talk about eliminating it from the Olympics, “if he’s a skier, is probably not sane.” Noting that other sports keep adding events — “snowballing” might be next, he joked — Kostelic said it would be wrong to take away one of skiing’s medal races.
At 34, Kostelic is the second-oldest Alpine medalist in Olympic history, about three months younger than Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt was when he won the super-G gold in 2006.
Add in his silver — what else? — from the 2010 slalom, and Kostelic has won four medals. That brings the Kostelic family total to 10, because his younger sister Janica retired with six, a record four golds and two silvers.
“From Zagreb, from Croatia, without mountains. I must be satisfied,” said their father, Ante, who set up Friday’s slalom course, a tricky series of gates placed at oddly alternating intervals. “In two Olympic Games, I’m with my daughter. Three Olympic Games with my son. You know, for me — like a coach, like a trainer — it’s a big responsibility.”
His son has been told many times that silver is not as good as gold.
But that’s OK.
“People are always like, ‘You know, the silver is just one tiny step away from the gold.’ And at first, when I came into the finish, I was a bit disappointed,” Ivica Kostelic said. “But silver is good. … People on the podium have changed, and I stayed there.”