As German athletes fail to capture world titles in key winter sports like the Four Hills tournament, downhill skiing and Nordic events this season, many are beginning to yearn for past glory days.
Germany's winter sports haven't come out of the shadow of the past
Summer was not a good time for German sports enthusiasts. The Olympics turned out to be a major disappointment for the country’s medal aspirations. With the exception of rowing events, where Germany undisputedly dominated the waters, few athletes brought home the much-expected wins. In soccer the ball-crazed country performed even worse, burning out in the qualification rounds of the European Championship in Portugal.
Gold was a very precious and rare medal for Germany at the Athens Olympics
With the frustrations of the warmer months still etched on their memory, Germans began to look forward to the winter sports. After all, historically, these were the events where the country triumphed. One only needs to recall the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, when Germany topped the list of nations with a record 35 medals, 12 of which were gold.
And who can forget ski jumping sensation Sven Hannawald, who flew to a historic quadruple victory in the 2001/02 Four Hills Tournament and set the stage for a series of wins in the event?
Burn and bust?
Those glory days may be long gone. Hannawald, who suffered a burn-out syndrome after failing to bring home any significant victories last year, has completely removed himself from competition. The once immensely popular sport in which Germany has not fallen under sixth place since 1994 is now facing hard times. This year’s ski jumping grand slam will produce the country’s worst showing in 10 years.
Although two-time world title holder Martin Schmitt managed to jump to seventh place during this week’s Innsbruck competition of the Four Hills Tournament, the German team has little hope of turning around what has started out as a disappointing season. This year’s star has already been crowned: Janne Ahonen from Finland.
Sven Hannawald soars in front of the Zugspitze during the second competition of the Four Hills Tournament on Jan. 1, 2002.
“We need a new Hannawald,” the president of the Four Hills Tournament, Dietmar Hemerka, told German sports information service on Monday. Without a new national sports sensation the likes of Hanni, as he’s affectionately called, the sport is likely to go the same way as many of the summer disciplines.
First, the fans will stop coming to the events -- many of which are held in Germany -- then sponsors will start losing interest and, in the end, there will be no incoming talent for the next generation, Hemerka lamented.
Alpine and Nordic events go north and south
In other sports, this season’s first international competitions haven’t produced many more stunning moments. The alpine events, which took place during the last two weeks, have been dominated by Germany’s southern neighbors, particularly the Austrians. In the women’s competition, Marlies Schild has emerged as the face to watch after she captured the world cup in both the slalom and giant slalom.
Germany's Hilde Gerg speeds through a Super-G course
Hilde Gerg, the 1998 gold medallist from Nagano, is so far the only German woman to bring home a major win in the alpine events this year with a victory at St. Moritz in the Super-G. In the men’s Alpine competitions, the Germans couldn’t even break through the top 10, coming in at best a modest 15th in the downhill event.
Germany hasn’t fared much better in the nordic events, which are the clear domain of the Scandinavians this year. Norway has its sights clearly trained on world titles in both men’s and women’s biathlon, disciplines Germany had mastered only recently with several gold medals and world cup victories under its belt.
With the exception of third-places for Axel Teichmann and Claudia Künzel in the 30-kilometer long-distance events, Germans had little to celebrate in cross-country skiing. The women’s relay team had to be content with a fifth place finish at the world cup in Asiago, Italy, while the men watched from the sidelines after failing to qualify for the finals.
World champions in luge
Barbara Niedernhuber, silver medalist (left), Sylke Otto, gold, and Silke Kraushaar, bronze, celebrate Germany's sweep in the women's singles luge at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics
The only winter discipline still unquestionably in the hands of Germans is the luge. With a one-two-three sweep by Barbara Niedernhuber, Sylke Otto and Silke Kraushaar in singles and a first place in the doubles this past weekend in Königssee, German women once again showed they are the champions in the often marginalized sport.
Since 1997, the country has not produced anything under a third-place finish in any of the luge events. In the team competition, German men and women topped the list on New Year’s Day in Oberhof, ahead of Italy and Austria.
But the victories in luge, a sport which relies equally on athletic skills and finely-engineered sleds, will not likely dominate the sporting headlines this winter. It’s also unlikely that an event that only draws a few thousand spectators can reverse the overall pessimism that has plagued the German sports scene.
What is needed is a new Hannawald to send German sports enthusiasts soaring. Otherwise it is going to be a long cold winter.