PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Rarely can the phrase “nice guys finish last” have had less resonance in the sporting arena than after Aksel Lund Svindal’s triumph in the Olympic downhill on Thursday.
The 35-year-old became not just the oldest man to win an Alpine Olympic gold but also one of the most popular and well beyond his native Norway where he enjoys major celebrity status.
Twice world downhill champion and silver medalist in the Vancouver Games eight years ago, Svindal can now take his place among the very best of all-time in his sport.
The first Norwegian to win the Olympic downhill reached a number of milestones with his victory.
And despite a succession of serious injuries, he has continued to smile and exude a friendly demeanor that has been a trademark of his career and bears comparison with tennis great Roger Federer.
“He is very down to earth, absolutely approachable, an absolute champion,” said Norwegian fan Jeffrey Allan Kolkmann, from Trondheim, who cheered on Svindal and silver medalist Kjetil Jansrud from behind the finish area.
The generally good-spirited World Cup ski circuit, where competitors face each other on a weekly basis, can occasionally produce petty jealousies or rivalries, but you will struggle to find a bad word said about Svindal.
“I think there is no bigger role model than Svindal,” 24-year-old German Thomas Dressen, a rising star of the sport who finished fifth on Thursday, told Reuters.
“It is incredible, firstly what he has achieved in his career but also what a grounded guy he is. He is really so helpful and nice.”
As a schoolkid, Svindal watched the first great Norwegian Alpine skier Kjetil Andre Aamodt win Olympic downhill silver on home snow in Lillehammer in 1994.
He burst on to the World Cup scene in 2006 by winning the super-G season title and a year later he secured the downhill world championship title.
He would surely have had many more than his 35 World Cup race wins were it not for injuries, such as those to his knee that cut short his last two seasons.
The worst came in 2007 when Svindal crashed dramatically at Beaver Creek in Colorado.
He was left unconscious on the slope with blood pouring from a deep gash in his buttock caused by one of his skis and he suffered a broken bone in his back and several fractures to his face.
He was rushed to hospital where he spent three weeks and it was 10 months before he returned to action.
Yet back at Beaver Creek a year later Svindal put the bad memories aside and won both downhill and super-G in spectacular style to set up a season in which he regained his overall World Cup crown.
As if to emphasize his defiance, the Norwegian has since won three more downhill World Cup races at Beaver Creek.
“It showed him how strong he can be mentally, that he can work around difficulties,” Norway Alpine team director Claus Ryste said.
“He is always a guy who is thinking about what he can do rather than complaining about anything. If he is injured he is asking ‘what can I do to get better?’. If he is behind he asks ‘what do I need to do?’
“This culture has brought him all the way here”.
It is also a culture that has been integral to the broader success of the Norwegian Alpine team.
“He is there first in the morning for the training session and helps pull us together as a team in an individual sport. He helped a lot to build this team, no doubt about that,” said Ryste.
Svindal, who will have a chance for another medal in Friday’s super-G, said he was “close to 100 percent sure” this will be his last Olympics.
But it was a sign of the fiery competitor within him that when asked by an Austrian reporter if this win had completed his career he said: “Well, I have never won Kitzbuehel right?”.
Don’t bet against Svindal adding the famous Austrian downhill title to his achievements before he finally bows out.
Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond