By Mark Trevelyan
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Sweden's Andre Myhrer won the men's Olympic slalom on Thursday at the age of 35, keeping his head while others were losing theirs as both his main rivals destroyed their chances with uncharacteristic mistakes.
Skiing in his fourth Games and cheered on by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Myhrer won by 0.34 seconds from Ramon Zenhaeusern of Switzerland and by 0.67 from Michael Matt of Austria.
Pre-race favourite Marcel Hirscher dropped out following a bad mistake half-way through the first run that sent his skis flailing, while Norway's Henrik Kristoffersen blew his chance of victory after just a handful of turns on run two.
"I think if you win the gold medal at the Olympics, which has been a big goal of mine throughout my career, it's something not many athletes are able to do and this was my last chance. This tops everything," Myhrer said after improving on the bronze he won in Vancouver in 2010.
The contest had been thrown wide open by Hirscher's shock failure in his favorite event as he chased his third gold medal of the Games.
That seemed to open the door to his arch-rival Kristoffersen, who set the fastest time of the morning to lead Myhrer by 0.21 seconds, but he skiied out early on his second run as the Swede looked on from the foot of the course.
"I'm not disappointed. Better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all," said the Norwegian, who after years of close rivalry with Hirscher must have wondered if his day had come at last.
Matt, brother of 2014 slalom champion Mario, put in the fastest second run at 50.66 seconds to move up nine places from 12th.
"My brother called me after the first run, which is always bad news as it means I’ve done badly. I made a mistake in the second run as well and thought I didn’t have a chance of the podium. That makes it all the more satisfying," he said.
Zenhaeusern was only ninth in the morning but clocked the second-fastest run of the afternoon. He watched from the leader's chair as the next six racers all failed to capitalize on their advantage from the morning race.
Then came Myhrer, beating his chest before bursting out of the start gate and carving his way cleanly and smoothly down the course.
His afternoon time was only the eighth fastest, but combined with his second place in the morning was enough to win with a total time of one minute, 38.99 seconds.
Myhrer is just 16 days younger than Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, winner of the men’s downhill last week, and the pair are the oldest gold medalists in Olympic Alpine skiing - a distinction previously held by Mario Matt, who was 34 when he won his gold medal in Sochi.
Zenhaeusern, a pre-race outsider with just one World Cup podium finish to his name, is 25 and stands 2 meters (6 feet, 7 inches) tall, a rarity in a discipline where skiers appear at times almost to skim the snow as they transfer their weight on the turns.
"Nobody thought that a two-metre man could be fast in slalom, but here I am," the Swiss said, describing the experience as "like in a dream".
Hirscher, who won the Alpine combined and giant slalom in Pyeongchang, had struggled in training for the slalom at the Yongpyong Alpine Center.
"I never have problems with grip on the ice. But if it is grippy and hard, packed snow like here today, I'm really not able to handle this," he said.
He had been bidding to become only the third man to win three Alpine skiing gold medals at a single Olympics.
"It's been amazing and really perfect, it was a big surprise that I won the gold medal in the super combined and it's also a surprise that I'm standing here now out of the race," he said.
"But this is part of the game and part of the sport."
(Additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Ed Osmond)