(CNN)How do you judge greatness in sport? Can you even compare athletes from different eras? Two classic bar room topics with no finite answers.
Last ski season, all the talk was about Lindsey Vonn’s quest to pass Ingemar Stenmark as the most successful racer of all time. Given Vonn’s early retirement through injury, Stenmark’s 86 World Cup race wins remains the benchmark, but perhaps there is another measure of greatness. How about being the best in the business for eight years running?
If so, Austria’s Marcel Hirscher is already history’s best ski racer. He may have retired this week with 67 wins to his name, but the 30-year-old megastar clinched an unprecedented eighth straight World Cup overall crown last season. Visit CNN.com/Sport for more news, features and videosRead MoreBy comparison, double Olympic champion Stenmark — a Swedish icon alongside tennis great Bjorn Borg in the late 1970s and early 1980s — only won the overall title three times. Hirscher’s nearest rival on the men’s circuit was Marc Girardelli, who won five overall titles in nine seasons. Hirscher also won the slalom and giant slalom World Cup crowns six times each, clinched seven world titles in various disciplines and finally secured double Olympic gold in Pyeongchang in 2018 after taking silver in Sochi four years earlier.So while Hirscher’s name may not transcend skiing in the way that Vonn, or more recently Mikaela Shiffrin, has — for any number of cultural and sociological reasons — he deserves to be recognized as one of sport’s — any sports — greatest exponents. “I would place him in same range as Stenmark. At least,” Peter Schrocksnadel, veteran head of the Austrian Ski Federation, told CNN Sport in Kitzbuhel at the annual Hahnekamm races in January.READ: Lindsey Vonn makes history with bronze in final race of glittering careerREAD: Why Kitzbuhel downhill is skiing’s wildest ride Marcel Hirscher won two golds at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Supreme focusHirscher, like Stenmark, was a technical expert, excelling in the rhythmic dance of slalom and giant slalom rather than the brute power and bravado of the speed events.His poise under pressure, and ability to find speed even on the most intricate of courses is legendary. His nearest rival in recent seasons, Henrik Kristoffersen, can attest to the almost supernatural power of Hirscher’s second-run charges, calling him, “The king, the greatest.”
1/2: Marcel, congratulations on an amazing career! The king, the greatest! I was hoping that we would have one more go around on snow, but your decision is totally understandable after spending time with you! @MarcelHirscher pic.twitter.com/ILqIhRlNkv
— Henrik Kristoffersen (@H_Kristoffersen) September 5, 2019 American Ted Ligety, a double Olympic gold medalist champion and five-time World Cup giant slalom champion, said Hirscher “changed ski racing forever.” “He shifted the paradigm in what we thought was possible on skis,” Ligety told Powder magazine. “He forced everyone to raise their level of skiing and at times it felt like a futile effort.”He seemed to always get better and never seemed to have off days. He did that all while being humble, kind and graceful. A true champion. I will miss competing against him but I have to be honest, part of me won’t, he was too good.” View this post on Instagram
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Back home in skiing-mad Austria, Hirscher has been a bona fide superstar for years. As a product of his millennial generation, he has a huge social media fan base, following his life in skiing, fitness, car racing, motorbikes and beyond. He even has his own magazine called “Heroes.” Such is his popularity and fame — eclipsing Bayern Munich star David Alaba or tennis player Dominic Thiem — that even going out in public is problematic, according to journalist Florian Madl of Innsbruck-based daily paper Tiroler Tageszeitung.”He won’t walk down the street,” Madl told CNN in Kitzbuhel. “It would take 20 minutes to do what should take him 20 seconds.”Hirscher is a five-time Austrian Sports Personality of the Year and was recently named “Champion of Champions” for 2018 by French newspaper L’Equipe, joining sporting greats such as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Usain Bolt and Lionel Messi to have been honored. In January, Eurosport named him Sportsman of the Year, ahead of fellow nominees such as Novak Djokovic, Simone Biles and Lewis Hamilton. “What makes Marcel so great? It’s himself,” added Schrocksnadel.”He’s the most focused skier I know, since ever, and I’ve been in the business a long time. He doesn’t care how many first places he has, he wants to win the next one, that’s his focus.”READ: How Special Forces training is speeding up US downhillers
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ReplayMore Videos …MUST WATCH (15 Videos) Mikaela Shiffrin shatters records in stellar season Marcel Hirscher: Skiing great mulls retirement Mikaela Shiffrin: Lead singer? Big night out? Vacation destination? Lindsey Vonn on retirement & Mikaela Shiffrin Why Kitzbuhel is skiing’s wildest ride Kitzbuhel: skiing’s biggest party 2014 Olympic slalom champion opens up The first woman to land a cab triple 1260 The life and legacy of Karl Molitor Lindsey Vonn to retire after World Ski Champs Mikaela Shiffrin’s dominance of the World Cup Lindsey Vonn exclusive on her final season Mikaela Shiffrin: Why I won’t be objectified Mikaela Shiffrin: Politics too “toxic” Lindsey Vonn’s furry friends’Hates to lose’According to Hirscher, his body shape is the “perfect symmetry” for ski racing — not too small or tall and a good weight, and with “good genes” — but he believes his secret is his attention to detail. And he always credits the team around him for his success. “I am not the better skier,” he says. “With my team, I am able to have my equipment on point.” But if it was just having the right gear, others could be as good.Madl added: “He can’t lose. And he cannot hide that he can’t lose. While someone else is sleeping or relaxing he still picks on things like technique, or bindings or ski material or edge grip or whatever. There’s nearly no spare time, he uses all the time for his focus.” Photos: Stunning images from ski racingWinter wonderland – Snow covers the mountains and the 2018-2019 ski racing season is under way. Here’s some of the best photos from the circuit.Hide Caption 1 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingTaste of victory – Marcel Hirscher shares his slalom victory in Levi, Finland, with a friend.Hide Caption 2 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingAll in the landing – Klaus Brandner looks to regain his balance as he races in Beaver Creek, Colorado.Hide Caption 3 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingFeeling the snow – Mikaela Shiffrin gets low to the ground in St Moritz, where she won the parallel slalom and super-G events.
Hide Caption 4 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingShining light – The giant slalom slope of Val d’Isère shines amid dark skies; the slalom was canceled because of bad weather.Hide Caption 5 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingLeap of faith – France’s Alexis Pinturault searches for speed en route to a third-placed finish in Alta Badia, Italy.
Hide Caption 6 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingPoles apart – Petra Vlhova in action at the women’s slalom in Semmering, Austria.Hide Caption 7 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingSnowballing out of control – Norway’s Mina Fuerst Holtmann crashes out in Zagreb’s women’s slalom.Hide Caption 8 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingLeaving a trace – US skier Thomas Biesemeyer leaves a spray of snow behind him as he cuts inside.Hide Caption 9 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingCrashing out – Canada’s Erin Mielzynski ends up on her back during the women’s slalom in Zagreb.Hide Caption 10 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingThe queen's coronation – Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates with champagne and a crown after winning the women’s slalom in Zagreb.Hide Caption 11 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingA winter's image – Marcel Hirscher flies round a bend during a winning run at the picturesque Adelboden.Hide Caption 12 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingFlying the flag – Austria’s Marcel Hirscher is presented as the winner of the giant slalom race in Adelboden.Hide Caption 13 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingSnow distraction – Mikaela Shiffrin closes her eyes as her runners-up celebrate by throwing snowballs at her in Kronplatz.Hide Caption 14 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingPosing for the camera – Italy’s Federica Brignone competes in the women’s giant slalom at Kronplatz.Hide Caption 15 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingBalancing act – Travis Ganong in super-G action on a hazy day.Hide Caption 16 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingJumping for joy – Austria’s Vincent Kriechmayr flies through the Wengen air during his winning run in the men’s downhill event.Hide Caption 17 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingThe sky's the limit – Matthias Mayer steadies himself before beginning his downhill, with the clouds above him mirroring the Wengen mountains.Hide Caption 18 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingA mountain to climb – A female skier competes against the domineering backdrop of Cortina’s rocky mountains.Hide Caption 19 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingPicture perfect – Mikaela Shiffrin wins in Cortina as she dominates the super-G in the Italian mountains.Hide Caption 20 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingWhite as snow – Jonathan Nordbotten slaloms towards the Kitzbuhel faithful on a snow-filled day in Austria.Hide Caption 21 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingArnie – “He’s back…!” Muscleman, movie star and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger takes in the action during his regular visit to the Hahnenkamm races in Kitzbuhel.Hide Caption 22 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingItalian style – Dominik Paris in action on his way to winning the men’s downhill in Kitzbuhel, Austria.Hide Caption 23 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingAirborne – Manuel Schmid takes an insect-like leap during his super-G run at Kitzbuehel.Hide Caption 24 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingPick that one out – Italy’s Sofia Goggia celebrates finishing second in the women’s downhill in Garmisch.Hide Caption 25 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingLying low – Swiss skier Luana Fluetsch appears almost flat on the snow as she competes in the super-G in Garmisch.Hide Caption 26 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingOne of the World Cup circuit’s most celebrated events is the night slalom in Schladming, Austria. Thousands of ski racing fans line the slope to watch the world’s best compete under floodlights. Local hero Marcel Hirscher triumphed again this year.Hide Caption 27 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingSwerving all obstacles – Marcel Hirscher focuses as he slides past the poles during the slalom.Hide Caption 28 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingLight in the darkness – Alexis Pinturault takes second place at night during the men’s slalom in Schladming.Hide Caption 29 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingDisturbing the surface – Switzerland’s Daniel Yule competes in SchladmingHide Caption 30 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingBlack and white – The silhouette of Gabriela Capova stands out as she competes in the slalom event in Maribor.Hide Caption 31 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingSnowed under – Fans in Garmisch seek shelter as the men’s competition is canceled due to weather conditions.Hide Caption 32 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingA World Championship view – Are, the home of the 2019 World Ski Championships.Hide Caption 33 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingA moment of panic – Lindsey Vonn is surrounded after a gruesome fall at the World Championships in Are.Hide Caption 34 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingBack on her feet – Lindsey Vonn is helped after crashing out of the penultimate race of her career in the super-G event at the World Championships in Are.Hide Caption 35 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingA fairytale ending – Despite crashing earlier in the week, Lindsey Vonn goes out in style at the World Championships in Are.Hide Caption 36 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingA legend's farewell – Vonn celebrates winning World Championship bronze in the downhill in her final race before retirement.Hide Caption 37 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingThis way and that – Slovenia’s Stefan Hadalin competes in the first run of the men’s giant slalom at the World Championships in Are.Hide Caption 38 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingPole position – Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway steps out of long-time rival Marcel Hrischer’s shadow to win gold in the giant slalom in Are.Hide Caption 39 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingPicture perfect – Sweden’s Anna Swenn-Larsson reacts after winning silver in the slalom at the World Ski Championships in Are.Hide Caption 40 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingOvercome with emotion – Mikaela Shiffrin collapses to the ground in delight as she wins her fourth consecutive gold in the slalom at the World Ski Championships.Hide Caption 41 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingWhen perils of the slalom – Mikaela Shiffrin finds herself in a tangle during the city event in Stockholm.Hide Caption 42 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingGrey – The men’s super-G is canceled due to a of heavy overnight snowfall.Hide Caption 43 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingPhotographic perfection – A racer’s silhouette arches across a peerless landscape.Hide Caption 44 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingChild's play – Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener poses with a furry mascot during the combined event at Crans-Montana.Hide Caption 45 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingTaking the plaudits – Italy’s Federica Brignone celebrates her victory in the Alpine combined race at Crans-Montana.Hide Caption 46 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingWhen poles collide – French racer Alexis Pinturault in action during the giant slalom in Bansko, Bulgaria.Hide Caption 47 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingBeaten by the elements – The women’s super-G falls victim to Sochi’s curious weather patterns.Hide Caption 48 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingNo-go zone – The Rosa Khutor resort in Sochi looks a ghostly, isolated picture after competition is called off due to conditions.Hide Caption 49 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingUp in the canopies – Switzerland’s Priska Nufer leaps as she competes in the downhill at Crans-Montana.Hide Caption 50 of 51 Photos: Stunning images from ski racingSnow blue – Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec leaves a path of turquoise in her trail at Crans-Montana.Hide Caption 51 of 51Austria has spawned many men’s ski greats over the years, including the late Toni Sailer, a seven-time world champion and triple Olympic gold medalist in 1956. Then there’s speed merchant Hermann Maier, a four-time World Cup overall winner and double Olympic champion. But another Austrian legend Franz Klammer says comparisons are worthless, given different events, conditions, equipment, physical fitness, nutrition, competition and other factors. “It’s different, you cannot compare Toni Sailer with Marcel Hirscher,” Klammer, the five-time World Cup downhill champion and 1976 OIympic downhill gold medallist, told CNN in Kitzbuhel. “They are different times, different situations — downhill skiers are different to slalom skiers. But Hirscher is definitely one of the best ever.”READ: Skiing’s bucket-list party even Arnie can’t miss Hirscher won six World Cup slalom crowns and six giant slalom titles.’Extremely lucky’ If Hirscher was impressive with nine wins in what would be his final season, his achievements the previous year were arguably more remarkable. He broke his ankle on his first training day on snow in August 2017, fearing his dreams of Olympic glory — even his career — could be over. But racing with no pressure, he blew away Kristoffersen, and stormed to 13 wins on the World Cup circuit as well as clinching his first Olympic gold medals with the giant slalom and combined in Pyeongchang. In his regular blog at the end of last season, Hirscher quashed rumours he would switch to the speed disciplines to refresh his motivation. But when he married his partner Laura last summer and the couple welcomed their first child — a boy — in the autumn, many observers thought ski racing would be pushed into the background.He hung around for one more glittering year, but retired at the very top of his game this September. “I always wanted to quit at a moment when I knew I could still win races,” he said at his retirement news conference in Salzburg.
“I believe that I was extremely lucky. As an athlete, I go home without any after effects. It was also that I want to play football with my little boy, climb the mountains and do things without any serous injury or pain.”Marcel Hirscher. Skiing’s true G.O.A.T?