By Mark Trevelyan
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Mario Matt rolled back the years and Marcel Hirscher made a 'nearly impossible' surge from ninth place to second in the men's slalom on Saturday as Austria's skiers ended the Sochi Olympics where they began - on top of the podium.
Nearly two weeks after Matthias Mayer's surprise win in the men's downhill, 34-year-old "Super Mario" delivered an even bigger shock by taking gold in the slalom, the same discipline in which he won world titles as far back as 2001 and 2007.
"I've often had to fight hard in my career. The first world title came very quickly and I had to battle for the second because I've had a lot of injuries. Coming back is even harder than starting," he told reporters, describing his win as the highlight of his career.
With Hirscher safely home, first round leader Matt was the last serious challenger to start his second run down a devilish, twisting course where some of the world's top skiers had crashed out in rapid succession. He said he tried "simply to imagine it was a normal race".
Hirscher, overall World Cup champion in each of the last two seasons and leader again this year, had managed only a fourth and a fifth place in Vancouver in 2010, and complained of an "Olympic jinx" after finishing fourth again in the giant slalom on Wednesday.
After his first run on Saturday, he told Reuters, "I thought there would be no chance. It is nearly impossible to ski from nine to two."
But the course's difficulty brought his technical skills to the fore, and he laughed when told that several of his rivals had complained it was unfairly tough.
"We were searching for Olympic champions ... not a course setting which is more for youth racers," the 24-year-old said. "It is not unfair because you have an inspection and you can see every turn."
The Austrian 1-2 means that one of the traditional skiing powers is back at the peak of the sport.
Having missed out on medals completely in Vancouver, the Austrian men are leaving Sochi with two gold medals and a silver, the best performance by any country, to add to their women's one gold, three silvers and two bronze.
(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Martyn Herman)