By Annika Breidthardt
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - As seven of the first eight starters skied out during Saturday's super-G, eyebrows were raised. They went higher when Austrians grabbed the gold and bronze medals.
For Austrian coach Florian Winkler had set the course that proved too big a challenge for 18 of the 49 women.
"I'm not saying it was easy for (the Austrians). But maybe it was easier," Italy's Daniela Merighetti, who started third but did not make it to the finish line, told reporters.
"It's not easy to stay on track because the setting is very turny and very slow at the top."
Austria's Anna Fenninger, who failed to finish Wednesday's downhill, took gold ahead of Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch who claimed her second medal after winning the super-combined. Fenninger's team mate Nicole Hosp finished third.
The last jump heading into the steep final stretch took the biggest toll and almost cost Hoefl-Riesch a medal when she jumped too far and nearly missed a gate.
"It was not a perfect run but it was a matter of not making too many mistakes," Fenninger said. "It was just a course to attack. That's what we Austrians like, what we train for and what we have to do in the race. It was a good course."
COMICAL WATER SKIING
Later racers were less critical of the course, saying it was fair but tricky and technically difficult to ski. They pointed the finger instead at the slushy snow conditions which some described as tropical and "like water skiing".
"It was kind of comical today," said American Leanne Smith, who started second and was the only finisher among the first eight.
Smith said she almost came to a stop during the race. "Normally running as two is awesome. But I knew people were going to come down and just clobber me.
"The winners are the best super-G skiers on the World Cup and they had plenty of time to prepare to make the changes. Once they see me having trouble there... it's all about making changes and figuring out the best approach for their athletes."
Winkler, who set Saturday's course, shrugged off any idea that he may have favored his own team.
Asked what went through his mind when so many of the early starters dropped out, he said: "I just knew it could be done with a bit of tactics. They made mistakes at the top and the bottom. But of course you start thinking.
"On the other hand I was quite happy because I thought we don't have the early start numbers and we can make some adjustments, which we did. And that really worked out."
Like most of the racers, Winkler pointed to Austria's dominance of the event. Fenninger is the third Olympic women's super-G champion in a row from her country.
"You can make some adjustments to the course and can think about it a little, but I just think our women did very well today. We just have the strongest team in super-G right now and today they just got the mix right," he said.
Course setting has been hotly discussed at this Games. On Friday, a banana-skin slalom course set by former skier Ante Kostelic proved too much for some in the men's super-combined.
His son and silver medalist Ivica hit back at critics.
"I'd just like to say that his courses are somewhat old- fashioned, like the courses before measuring was introduced into the World Cup," Kostelic said on Friday.
"Since then, everyone has become a course-setter. Now all you need is a measuring tape and a drill and you're a course setter."
Winkler's course did not suit all Austrians. Elisabeth Goergl failed to finish, having dropped out during the super-combined and finishing 16th in the downhill.
"It's really tricky to ski this course," the 2011 super-G world champion said. "I didn't figure out the balance between aggressive and tactical skiing."
(Reporting by Annika Breidthardt, additional reporting by Mark Trevelyan and Martyn Herman; Editing by Julien Pretot and Robert Woodward)