By Nick Mulvenney
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - In the end, Marcel Hirscher's bid to finally clinch an Olympic gold medal in his favorite event lasted less than 30 seconds on Thursday, the Austrian slalom king thwarted by an uncharacteristic error and the Pyeongchang snow.
To those outside the 28-year-old's camp, the scene had looked set fair for Hirscher to join fellow Austrian Toni Sailer and France's Jean-Claude Killy as the only male Alpine skiers to have won gold in three events at one Games.
Hirscher had already won the giant slalom and Alpine combined titles in Pyeongchang, has claimed the World Cup slalom title for four of the last five years and even had his coach Michael Pircher setting the course for Thursday's first run.
Unbeknownst to the outsiders, however, one of the best technical skiers the sport has ever seen had been struggling all week with conditions on the Yongpyong slalom slope, which mimicked the grippy snow found on North American runs.
Going out fifth, he carved his way smoothly down the top of the course before a mistake left him with skis flailing, his usual metronomic rhythm gone.
A gate was missed. His race was over.
Such has been Hirscher's dominance of the event over the last six years, his premature exit was a shock to rank alongside Ester Ledecka's remarkable victory in the women's super-G -- for all, apparently, but the Austrian himself.
"For sure it is disappointing," he told reporters. "But I already had a bad feeling about the whole situation. It was kind of shitty already before the race started.
"I couldn't find any speed. We were not able to find something that makes it possible to ski around the gates smooth and clean... if it is grippy and hard, packed snow like here today, I'm really not able to handle this.
"This is as well the mistake of my technician and my powerful skiing -- the smoother you ski, the better you are in these conditions."
Hirscher said he had been disappointed that a promise to inject water into the slope, which would have created icier conditions more conducive to his style, had not been followed through, but he was reluctant to criticize race organizers.
The six-times overall World Cup champion said dealing with his disappointment had been made easier because his expectations had been lowered by poor training runs.
"If you have already had two days to accept that there is no chance, if nothing is going to change, then you have enough time to be fine with it," he shrugged. "I definitely tried my best."
It is not the first time Hirscher has endured disappointment in the Olympic slalom: he finished fifth in Vancouver in 2010 and took a silver behind compatriot Mario Matt on an idiosyncratic course in Sochi.
Having finally become an Olympic champion, though, Hirscher will return to the business of securing a seventh successive overall World Cup crown at Kranjska Gora in Slovenia next week with a sense of satisfaction over his Pyeongchang campaign.
"It's been amazing and really perfect, it was a big surprise that I won the gold medal in the 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. Hopefully there are still tickets available for a plane right now and I'm traveling home."
His six World Cup overall titles and 55 wins on the premier circuit have long brought Hirscher into the discussion over the title of 'greatest skier of all time'.
That he doesn't really race in the downhill will always hamper his candidature for some of his compatriots, while overhauling Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark's 86 World Cup wins remains a requirement in the eyes of others.
Hirscher had previously said that Pyeongchang would be his final Olympics but appeared to be reconsidering his position on Thursday.
"I'm not sure, I need a gold medal in slalom!" he said with a laugh. "No, just kidding, we will see in four years."
(Editing by John O'Brien)