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Olympics: Light-hearted Hirscher targets slalom gold

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Austria's Marcel Hirscher goes into Saturday's Olympic men's slalom feeling the pressure has lifted from his shoulders but facing a tough challenge from Felix Neureuther of Germany and Norway's Henrik Kristoffersen.

The 24-year-old world champion finished fourth on Wednesday in the giant slalom -- a race that was expected to bring him his first Olympic medal.

But a day after his disappointment, the Austrian appeared remarkably upbeat, saying he felt ready to take on the slalom, which will conclude two weeks of alpine skiing competitions at the Sochi Games.

"A heavy weight fell from my shoulders. The first race is always the most difficult at big events. I feel free," said the current overall, slalom and giant slalom World Cup leader.

"I actually feel less pressure than yesterday. A lot can always happen in the slalom, so I'll try everything and take as many risks as possible, with the knowledge that it could go wrong.

"But really I'm not feeling that much pressure at the moment. I feel lighter than two days ago."

The two-time overall World Cup winner has often complained of huge expectations from his ski-obsessed country, but two Austrian Olympic golds already in alpine skiing have lessened the load.

"The big fear that my head will get chopped off (if I don't win) isn't there," Hirscher said with a laugh after his fourth place.

"It's nice to see that people, fans and media also stand by your side when things don't work out."

Hirscher's biggest rival has long been his friend Neureuther, who beat him to first place in Bormio, Italy last month.

The 29-year-old German had a minor car crash on his way to the airport last week but was cleared to compete and finished eighth in the giant slalom, although still feeling pain in his neck.

- 'Take part at any cost' -

"I will take part at any cost," he said days before the slalom. "I said before that there would be no excuses."

Having used his first race in Sochi as a practice session, he promised to attack in the Games' closing alpine event: "My body passed the test. That gives me strength and confidence for Saturday!" he wrote on Facebook.

One man who could upset the pair is Norwegian sensation Kristoffersen, who has grabbed four slalom podiums this season and is level with Neureuther in the World Cup standings.

Fresh from his win in Schladming last month, the 19-year-old could become the youngest man ever to win an Olympic medal in alpine skiing.

But with tricky course conditions that have created challenges for the skiiers over the past two weeks, "the circle of favourites is much bigger and it's entirely possible that we'll see athletes again who aren't necessarily at the top of the 'watchlist'," Hirscher forecast.

Giant slalom surprise silver medallist Steve Missillier of France, Sweden's Mattias Hargin, Hirscher's teammate Mario Matt and Swiss candidates Luca Aerni and Daniel Yule all have good chances, he said.

"From (start number) one to 15, I think everything's possible," said Hirscher, fifth in the slalom at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

The last race was already forgotten and he is now focusing on the one ahead of him, he added.

"I hope I can take that little bit of experience (from the giant slalom) with me and that it will help just a little bit.

"Yesterday is history, it's done and dusted, the day after tomorrow is just a new chance. It won't be an attempt to make up (for Wednesday)."

The slalom -- taking place under floodlights -- starts at 4:45 pm (1245 GMT) with a second run at 8:15 pm.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140221/olympics-light-hearted-hirscher-targets-slalom-gold