They were supposed to be the Games of Bode Miller sweeping the alpine events and Michelle Kwan riding off into the sunset as an Olympic gold medalist. Instead, Miller went without a medal, an injured Kwan was replaced by Emily Hughes, and on their 10th anniversary, the 2006 Torino Olympics will always be remembered for me by Janica Kostelic’s win in the alpine combined that catapulted the 24-year-old Croatian to the platform as the all-time most decorated female Olympic skier.
Kostelic was only 20 at Salt Lake in 2002 when she became the first woman in Olympic history to capture three gold medals in a single Games, taking the combined, slalom and giant slalom to tie Vreni Schneider, Katja Seizinger and Deborah Compagnoni with three for the career. A victim of several surgeries, she was forced to retire at 25. Now, a decade later, we must wonder if she can be considered the greatest skier, with a question mark of what if?
At 31, Lindsey Vonn is going strong and is breaking nearly every career record on the World Cup circuit, most of which were held by Annemarie Moser-Proll. Her 76 wins, 38 downhill victories and 124 podiums are all records, and with 1,060 points this season, she is 87 ahead of Lara Gut and in position for a fifth overall title, plus has individual leads in the downhill and super-G. However, like Moser-Proll’s gold medal in Lake Placid, the Vancouver downhill remains her sole victory in the Olympics, when casual fans and the world are watching.
“It’s the age-old question: What’s a bigger deal, an Olympic gold medal or a career of achievement?” USA Today columnist Christine Brennan said in an e-mail. “It’s what Michelle Kwan deals with in figure skating to this day. The public at large puts a higher premium on Olympic medals, for sure. But within a sport, overall excellence is appreciated as much if not more. So I could vote either way, although, from a U.S. perspective, Vonn is the far bigger star, especially since she does have that one big Olympic gold medal in one of the marquee events of the Winter Olympics, the downhill.”
Kostelic won three overall World Cup titles and is 10th all-time with 30 wins, 20 of which were in the slalom. In World Championships, Kostelic won five gold medals and Vonn six.
“Pick between Janica Kostelic’s incredible performance at the 2002 Winter Olympics or Lindsey Vonn’s record World Cup wins? Wow, that’s extremely difficult,” added Patrick Graham, who covers alpine skiing on the Olympic level for the Associated Press, through e-mail. “Kostelic turned in one of the greatest weeks of skiing the world has ever witnessed. Vonn’s dominated for season after season like few ever have. Kostelic probably wouldn’t trade that performance for anything. Same with Vonn and what she’s accomplished – and still accomplishing.
“What made Kostelic’s performance so remarkable was that she was dealing with an aching knee entering those Olympics. Maybe one medal was a possibility. But certainly not a gold, and then another and another and for good measure another medal on top of it. Four medals? Still unfathomable.
“Vonn’s assault on the record books has been nothing short of incredible. She’s gone through two major knee surgeries – forcing her to miss the 2014 Sochi Games – and still is back and just as dominant as ever. Already the owner of the women’s World Cup mark for wins, Vonn has Ingemar Stenmark’s record now in sight (86 career men’s wins, which are 32 more than second-place Hermann Maier). All of this is a long-winded way of saying something very simple: Both performances are incredible achievements in their own right.”
Measurements of greatness between what’s done in and out of the Olympics vary between different sports. Karl Malone and John Stockton won two Olympic gold medals but couldn’t lead the Utah Jazz to an NBA championship, for example. Tamika Catchings has won gold medals in women’s basketball in each of the past three Olympics, to add to a resume that includes an undefeated NCAA title, WNBA championship and two FIBA World Championships. She compared her career with Vonn’s.
“I’m blessed to have been on the path I’m on, and we work really hard to have the opportunity we have,” Catchings said by phone from the NBA All-Star Weekend in Toronto. “It’s just an amazing thing with her to come back from trials and tribulations she’s had and have success.”
The six total Olympic medals Kostelic won were since evened by Anja Parson, when the Swede won a fourth career bronze at the Vancouver Games in the combined, although Parson’s slalom in Torino was her lone gold. The same day Kostelic won the combined at San Sicario on Feb. 18, 2006, Norwegian Kjetil Andre Aamodt won the super-G in Sestriere to set the men’s record. His four golds were won over a 14-year span, however.
Judging if an athlete is the best to ever play his or her sport is always a heated debate. For two Olympics, however, there was nothing faster down the slopes than a young woman with braids in her hair from a fledgling nation of four million.