* Races effectively get over before late starters begin
* Exotic entrants mainly conspicuous in slalom
* Even no-hopers dare to wonder 'What if...?'
By Mark Trevelyan
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea, Feb 23 (Reuters) - About an hour and a half after the world's top skiers had finished their Olympic slalom runs, Pakistan's Muhammad Karim began his descent, struggling to keep his grip on the tightly packed snow.
His shot at sporting glory did not end well.
Instead of passing cleanly through the 66 gates, his skis passed either side of one of them, instantly disqualifying him and undoing four years of training.
"It's so embarrassing for me," a crestfallen Karim told Reuters. "I'm so sad about that. Such bad luck."
All Olympic sports have their heroes and minnows, but the contrast sometimes seems especially stark in Alpine skiing, where the elite athletes set out long before the rest and the result has usually been effectively decided long before the also-rans have competed.
The exception to the rule was Ester Ledecka, the Czech skier - better known as a world champion snowboarder - who caught both rivals and experts unawares by storming through to win the women's super-G with starting bib number 26.
But generally, for those ranked outside the top flight, the lure of the Olympics is about representing their country, putting in a personal best, or simply sharing the stage with famous names like American Lindsey Vonn or Austrian Marcel Hirscher.
Yet in their hearts, if not their heads, they still dream of springing a surprise.
"You always kind of say: 'What if today is the magical day that I get a medal?' I think everyone thinks that, even the last finishers," said Chilean skier Noelle Barahona, who finished 25th in the women's downhill and finds it a little annoying when the later starters are dismissed out of hand.
"Sometimes it's weird when we have tech (slalom) races and they do, like, the medal ceremony before the last people go - it's like 'Wait, I'm still here', you know? It's a little bit bumming, like, 'Oh man, nobody has faith in me.'
"But when I finished today, this thing was full of people and I've never seen that before... I don't know, it's just magical energy."
The long tail of also-rans is especially conspicuous in the slalom events, which are less fast and dangerous than the downhill and super-G and therefore more attractive to second-tier skiers.
Albin Tahiri, a newly qualified dentist who works in Slovenia but skis for Kosovo, had the rare distinction of completing all five individual Alpine events, his best result being 37th in the combined which includes both downhill and slalom.
"Just being on the same course as the world's top athletes is an honour for me," he said at the slalom. "I think the audience respects all of us who are at the finish line."
Patrick Brachner, representing Azerbaijan, was less fortunate on his first run: "It was fun, until I straddled unfortunately. I got a gate between my legs."
New Zealander Willis Feasey, who lives out of a suitcase and has not been home since October as he travels the World Cup circuit from Europe to North America and back, recorded mid-30s finishes in the super-G and giant slalom, but also came to grief on the first run of the slalom - as did team-mate Adam Barwood.
For the Pakistani Karim, it has been a tough Olympics: apart from his slalom failure, he managed only 72nd in the giant slalom, exactly one place lower than in Sochi four years ago.
Still, he intends to be back.
"When you hold your country's flag at the Winter Olympics it's so good for us... it's a big thing for us," he said.
"Hopefully we will do more good training for the next Olympics and we improve our position." (Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)