By Mari Saito and Winni Zhou
ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) -Austria’s Alessandro Haemmerle won gold in the men’s snowboard cross final on Thursday at the Beijing Games, finishing ahead of Canadian Eliot Grondin in a neck-and-neck final race.
Haemmerle, who came in seventh at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, won the final race by 0.02 seconds, beating out Grondin, who came in 36th at the Olympics four years ago.
“Looking back and seeing the (playback) video I didn’t realise it was this close,” Haemmerle said, saying it came as a “huge relief” to win such a tight race.
“When it came to the final, I just pushed a little more. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it until we passed the finish line,” the Austrian said.
Canada’s Grondin, who won silver, had led Thursday’s races from the seeding runs, bolting over the course’s opening technical section faster than all the other competitors.
In the final race, Grondin, 20, started in the lead again, but 28-year old Haemmerle gained on him. The two boarders were side by side, duking it out over jumps and tight turns, but the Austrian edged out the Canadian right at the finish.
“I’m so happy to land on the podium at the Olympics with guys I’ve been battling for years,” Grondin said, adding that he had grown up watching Italy’s Omar Visintin compete.
“It’s crazy as I don’t even know what’s the feeling,” he said.
Visintin, 32, fell back in the final and could never make up the time, finishing after Grondin to take the bronze.
The retirement of France’s Pierre Vaultier, who won two golds at the Pyeongchang and Sochi Games, opened up the field for new boarders to take the crown. Spain’s Regino Hernandez, who won bronze four years ago, was also absent from Thursday’s starting line.
The Olympic snowboard cross course at the Genting Snow Park in Zhangjiakou runs for a distance of 1,310 metres and includes sharp turns, drops and jumps.
The sport is known to be unpredictable and dangerous, with favoured riders often crashing out unexpectedly and colliding with each other, causing injuries and delays.
American Nick Baumgartner, a favourite to make the podium in Beijing, was winning in the quarterfinal until his board made contact with another rider and he lost his lead. Australian Jarryd Hughes, who won silver in Pyeongchang, washed out in an earlier heat.
(Reporting by Mari Saito; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)