American teenager Chloe Kim and Austrian ski ace Marcel Hirscher lit up the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics Tuesday on a day of drama that included the first doping scandal of the Games.
Snowboarder Kim, 17, snatched the first of the day’s eight gold medals in the women’s halfpipe, while World Cup maestro Hirscher ended his long wait for a debut Olympic title.
But Japan’s short-track speed skater Kei Saito, 21, was at the centre of the first doping scandal in Pyeongchang after testing positive for a banned diuretic.
“I want to fight to prove my innocence because I don’t remember (taking the drug) and it’s incomprehensible,” he said in a statement.
While Kim’s brilliant run in the halfpipe stole the show, gold medals also went to Sweden and Norway in cross country skiing, and Italy in short-track speedskating.
Canada beat Switzerland to win the mixed doubles curling, while the Dutch maintained their perfect record in speedskating with a double in the men’s 1,500m.
On the slopes, Austrian star Hirscher cemented his legacy as the best skier of his generation with victory in the combined event.
Hirscher, 28, has been the outstanding skier in his slalom speciality for years, with 55 career World Cup wins.
But one prize had always eluded him — an Olympic gold medal. His previous best was a slalom silver from Sochi four years ago.
After playing down his chances ahead of the race at blustery freezing Pyeongchang, this time he nailed it.
“All the people expected me to win a gold medal, especially in Austria, my home country, where skiing is big,” he said.
“Everyone is saying, ‘Nice career, but an Olympic gold medal is still missing’. This is perfect, unbelievable.”
For Kim, her debut Olympics turned golden as she romped to snowboarding halfpipe victory. Born in the United States to Korean parents, Kim burst into tears as the enormity of her achievement sunk in.
The teenager, who has melted the hearts of home fans in Pyeongchang, justified her status as the hot favourite with an eye-popping top score of 98.25.
Pumping her fists after finishing with back-to-back 1080 spins, Kim revealed that her number one fan — her Seoul-based grandmother — had been in the crowd cheering her on.
“I actually only found out my grandma was at the bottom before my second run,” she said. “So I thought ‘this one’s for Grams!'”
Also celebrating gold was Stina Nilsson, who won the women’s cross country sprint classic for Sweden. In the men’s event, Johannes Klaebo of Norway won gold on his Olympic debut.
Italy got their first gold of the Games through Arianna Fontana in the 500m women’s short-track speed skating. South Korean multi-medal hope Choi Min-jeong finished second but was disqualified.
In speed skating, the Dutch claimed their fourth gold medal with a one-two in the men’s 1,500m through Kjeld Nuis and Patrick Roest.
Germany celebrated a one-two in the women’s luge, with Natalie Geisenberger pipping Dajana Eitberger to retain her Olympic title.
In curling, Canada’s Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris danced with delight after hammering Switzerland 10-3 to take the inaugural Olympic mixed doubles title.
Marcel Hirscher underlined his status as the best skier of his generation with a first, long-overdue Olympic gold in the alpine combined on Tuesday.
“Everyone’s been saying, ‘Nice career, but an Olympic gold medal is still missing’. This is perfect, unbelievable,” said Hirscher, who has won an unprecedented six consecutive World Cup overall titles on the back of 55 victories on the circuit.
But his Olympic history is more patchy: twice fourth in the giant slalom and a fifth in the 2010 slalom before grabbing silver in Sochi, leading to questions about his real legacy.
“This stupid question has now gone away, if I’m thinking that my career is perfect without a gold medal, now this question is zzz, deleted,” he said.
“I’m not travelling home tomorrow, but if I wished to I could because I have my big goal and I reached it.
“In Austria everyone’s expecting that I’m going to win a gold medal at least once. I’m super, super happy, I didn’t expect to win this in the combined.”
Hirscher, 28, made the most of a shortened opening downhill course on which the jumps were largely eliminated.
It was the perfect slope for the Austrian, and his 12th fastest time set him up perfectly for the slalom.
“It was an amazing downhill, maybe my best downhill ever. I killed it,” Hirscher said. “The shorter the downhill the better for the technical guys!”
He then made no mistake in the slalom, a discipline he has dominated in the World Cup this season with six victories.
Hirscher charged down with the fastest time to give him an unassailable lead over France’s Alexis Pinturault.
“The slalom course was very aggressive, really hard to gain speed and find the right line,” Hirscher said.
“Even for us slalom skiers, it was not easy to find the right line.”
Silver medallist Pinturault was followed home by teammate Victor Muffat-Jeandet in the country’s first podium showing in the combined since Henri Oreiller (gold) and James Couttet (bronze) in 1948.
“We are not competing for this kind of result or thinking of history,” Pinturault said of the 70-year gap in combined medals.
“It’s something good that this really old Olympic record has come down, but it was not the goal when we were at the start.”
Japanese short-track speed skater Kei Saito vowed to clear his name on Tuesday after testing positive for a banned substance in the first doping case to hit the Pyeongchang Olympics.
The 21-year-old is the first Japanese to test positive at a Winter Olympics and he was immediately thrown out of the Games on Monday.
The case will no doubt embarrass Japan, organisers of the Summer Games in 2020, and again forces the drug issue to the fore after Russia were formally banned for state-sponsored doping.
Saito returned positive tests for acetazolamide, an unauthorised diuretic which can be used to mask powerful performance-enhancing drugs.
“I want to fight to prove my innocence because I don’t remember (taking the drug) and it’s incomprehensible,” Saito said in a statement.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which handles doping cases during the Games, said Saito had left the athletes’ Olympic Village voluntarily and would be provisionally suspended from all competition pending a full investigation.
The head of the Japanese Olympic delegation in Pyeongchang, Yasuo Saito, said the skater was the first Japanese athlete to test positive for doping at a Winter Olympic Games.
The athlete was “surprised and dismayed” by the outcome of the drugs test, he said.
Saito, a human biology student whose sister Hitomi is also competing in Pyeongchang, arrived at the Athletes Village on February 4.
He was woken up at 02:00 the following morning by doping testers who took two samples.
“Both samples tested positive,” said the head of the delegation, who is also the vice-president of the Japan Olympic Committee.
Short-track speed skater Saito was a member of Japan’s 3,000m relay team that finished third at the 2013 and 2014 world junior championships.
He was pencilled in as a substitute for the 5,000m on Tuesday and could have raced in other events in Pyeongchang.
Saito was summoned before a CAS tribunal on Monday following the positive tests for acetazolamide, a medication used to treat complaints ranging from epilepsy to heart failure.
However, it works also as a masking agent that can hide or make it harder for testers to detect the presence of doping products.
Saito said he was innocent of any wrongdoing and had been tested prior to the Games, on January 29, and been found to be drug-free.
“As for the test results this time, the only possibility I can think of is that I accidentally and unconsciously put a banned substance in my mouth,” he added.
He had no need to ingest masking agents, he said.
“I’ve never used body-enhancing drugs so I don’t think about hiding it,” he said. “There’s no merit or motive for me in using this medicine.”
The IOC and anti-doping authorities have stepped up testing for the Pyeongchang Games following revelations of a state-sponsored doping scheme at the last Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
The entire Russian team was banned from Pyeongchang but a loophole allowed 168 “clean” athletes to compete as independent athletes under a neutral flag.