Sport is so unfair. it is the lot of some very talented athletes to emerge just when an exceptional individual dominates their sport. In any other era two-time Formula One World Champion Mika Hakkinen would be fêted as a brilliant driver, but he happens to be around at the same time as Michael Schumacher. Trinidadian sprinter Ato Boldon would likely have won more than a single World title had it not been for a certain Maurice Greene.
So it has been for Austrian skier Stephan Eberharter, who must be heartily fed up with taking silver to Hermann Maier's golds. But Maier put himself out of action last summer, so maybe Eberharter's time has come. Again.
Eberharter has had two careers. In 1991 at the age of 21, he became the youngest member of the Austrian team, winning world championships in the super-G and the combined downhill and slalom. But then came the injuries. A torn ligament in practice for the 1992 Albertville Games, a broken collarbone later in the year and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in 1994 kept him off the piste. Poor form in 1995-1996 prompted the coaches to drop him from the World Cup team to the less competitive Europa Cup, where he dominated the 1996-97 season and returned to World Cup racing.
Unfortunately for Eberharter that was the season that fellow Austrian Hermann Maier, who had turned professional only in 1994, won his first World Cup event. From then on Eberharter was the eternal bridesmaid. At the Nagano Games in 1998 he won giant slalom silver to Maier's gold. In the 1999 super-G World Cup standings he finished second, as he did in the 2000-2001 downhill and overall placings. By the end of 2000-2001 Eberharter had finished second to Maier, dubbed the Herminator by countryman Arnold Schwarzenegger, in 11 out of 13 World Cup races.
But now fortune has deserted Maier, who had a motorcycle accident in August, leaving him with compound fractures in his lower right leg and keeping him off his skis until December. Though he worked hard in the gym to make the team for Salt Lake City, last week he had to admit defeat. Which leaves Eberharter as top tip for Olympic honors. With four downhill victories this season, as well as super-Gs at Val d'Isère and Kitzbühel, Eberharter is brimming with confidence. "He's an inspiration," says American slalom specialist Bode Miller. "He's got so much experience," he adds, "he knows just how it goes, how to win."
After his Val d'Is d'Isère victories Eberharter received a congratulatory phone call from Maier and then had to endure a flurry of press demands to reveal details of the conversation, as well as suggestions that he'd won only because of Maier's absence. "I don't let myself be put under any pressure from anyone," he said. "I just do my thing. Let's see what comes of it." What comes of it could be a handful of long sought-after gold medals.