Skip to content

Olympic men’s downhill many things, but fair isn’t one of them

Feb 9, 2014, 9:45 PM EDT

cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznptjlnmfjzji1mwyzzmjimdmwndgzotzlndvlnzhjzmi0 AP

SOCHI — Here’s the thing you can feel, really feel, when watching Bode Miller ski the downhill: He’s on the edge. He’s pushing the edge. In his words, he’s pushing the line. All of the downhill skiers are but maybe you feel it a little more with Miller. He’s on the very edge.

The edge of what? Well, that’s a little bit harder to pinpoint. He’s always on the edge of a crash, of course, but it feels even more dangerous than that. It’s like he and the other downhillers are on the edge of something disastrous, something calamitous, something hard to put into words.

“Hhhhh!” the person next to me sounds off five or six times while Miller skis — the sound of catching breath. “Huhhh,” she inhales when he’s turning and looks as if he’s about to flip. “Huhhh!” she inhales when he crashes into a gate. “Huhhh!” she inhales when it seems like he’s about to go bouncing off the course and, possibly, into the outer atmosphere never to be seen again. It’s like a sustained two-minute horror movie.

VIDEO: Comparing Bode’s run to Mayer’s

The alpine downhill is, perhaps, the marquee event of the Games because of that “Huhhh” sound, because of the feeling in the pit of the stomach, because even with all the thrilling jumps and blazing speed around the Games, it is the sport that grabs your inside for a few thrilling seconds. And then it’s over.

That means: Over. There’s one run down the mountain. That’s all. In a sports world of second chances and efforts to make things even for everybody, the downhill is thoroughly and unapologetically unjust and biased. You get your turn. If you catch a bad break on the light, or the wind changes direction, or the course is chewed up for your run, or the weather takes a bad turn … you deal with it. There’s no second chance.

And because of this: We are on a 25-year run of mostly random Olympic champions. The greatest downhill skiers of the last quarter century are probably, in no particular order: Austrians Michael Walchhofer, Stefan Eberharter and the legendary Hermann Maier (the Herminator); the great Swiss skier Didier Cuche; fellow Swiss skier Franz Heinzer who won three consecutive World Cup downhill titles; France’s Luc Alphand who would become a race car driver; Norway’s current genius of the downhill Aksel Lund Svindal and, heck, let’s throw in Bode MIller because so many downhill skiers are in awe of his guts and will.

Here’s one thing that is true of all nine of those men who have dominated the downhill for a quarter century.

MORE: Margin calls — U.S. talks Alpine variables

Not one of them won an Olympic downhill gold medal.

It’s pretty wild, if you think about it. It would be like taking the nine fastest sprinters of the last 25 years and not one of them wins an Olympic gold in the 100m. The Olympic downhill was once the place to elevate the greatest downhill skiers — Franz Klammer, Jean Claude Killy, Toni Sailer, Bernhard Russi — into legendary figures.

MORE: Bode Miller disappointed, but dealing

But now — randomness rules. In Torino in 2006, for instance, France’s Antoine Deneriaz won gold. It was the only international downhill race he ever won. The great Michael Walchhofer, two-time defending World Cup champion, settled for the silver, the only downhill medal he ever won.

In 1998, France’s Jean-Luc Cretier won the downhill. It was HIS only international victory. Hermann Maier, like more than a dozen others, crashed on the seventh turn and could not finish. Maier won gold medals in the super-G and the giant slalom in his career. But the downhill always eluded the Herminator.

In 1994 it was American Tommy Moe, and, right, he never won a World Cup downhill race either. Franz Heinzer — who, as mentioned, had won three World Cup titles in a row — crashed. Two years earlier, Heinzer finished sixth.

Sunday, everyone was looking to Bode and Svindal and Adrien Theaux of France. They are the best in the world. Miller was the most intriguing of the bunch; though he’s 36 and has been written off, he had been awe inspiring in training. Two out of three sessions, he had finished with the fastest training time. After his breathtaking Saturday session, Kjetil Jansrud of Norway issued a quote on Miller’s run was blunt and to the point: “There’s not much to say besides it was epic.”

“It’s a f-ing real course,” Miller explained, as only Miller can explain.

MORE: Matthias Mayer restores Austrian pride

Then, Sunday, a 23-year-old named Matthias Mayer went out early on that bleepin’ real course and put up a pretty good time. He didn’t think it was THAT good a time, but then nobody really expected much of him. Mayer is the son of Helmut Mayer, the 1988 silver medalist in the super-G, and he’s considered a bit of a skiing phenom but so far he had not done much in the downhill. He had never won an international race.

Miller went four skiers later. He would say something about the sun going down on him and that causing some issues. He would say that the middle of the course just slowed down. Then, this is the deal with the downhill. No mercy. He was faster than Mayer at the top of the track but he slowed, he had a brush with a gate, and he simply could not find enough speed. His run certainly FELT dangerous. But it was a half second slow.

Svindal went shortly after Miller. He too could not find enough speed to get on the medal stand. Theaux followed and could not come close. The only one who did come close to Mayer was Italian Christof Innerhofer who is worth mentioning because he’s also an Armani swimsuit and ski wear model, plays the stock market, and takes painkillers for his back every single day so he can continue to ski. THAT is a downhill skier. He fell six-hundredths of a second short.

MORE: What makes Bode great after all these years?

And the times got slower and slower after that. Mayer won gold. It made him the fourth man since 1994 to win his first downhill event at the Winter Olympics.

“It’s tough when you have to judge yourself because the clock doesn’t really seem to judge you fairly,” Miller said when it ended.

That’s the downhill at the Olympics. It’s thrilling. It’s terrifying. It’s magnificent.

And it does not even pretend to be fair.

Latest Posts
  1. Gwen Jorgensen wins seventh straight World Triathlon Series event

    Mar 28, 2015, 10:24 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    It marked Jorgensen’s largest margin of victory in her World Triathlon Series career.

  2. Meryl Davis, Charlie White won’t compete next season

    Mar 28, 2015, 8:42 PM EDT

    Meryl Davis, Charlie White Getty Images

    But they haven’t decided on the 2018 Olympics.

  3. Watch World Figure Skating Championships — 8 p.m. ET

    Mar 28, 2015, 7:00 PM EDT

    Gracie Gold Getty Images

    Terry Gannon, Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir and Tracy Wilson are on the call.

  4. Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman competitive with U.S. teammates in comeback

    Mar 28, 2015, 2:24 PM EDT

    Gabby Douglas

    How they fared against World champion Simone Biles.

  5. Javier Fernandez wins upset World Championship; top American fourth

    Mar 28, 2015, 11:44 AM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    “I don’t know if it’s going to ever happen again.”

  6. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva wins World Championship; U.S. just misses medals

    Mar 28, 2015, 10:53 AM EDT

    Elizaveta Tuktamysheva Getty Images

    Next year, Tuktamysheva can go for a feat not seen since 2001.

  7. U.S., Canada women’s hockey teams renew rivalry at World Championships

    Mar 27, 2015, 11:30 AM EDT

    AP AP

    The U.S. has a new former NHL player as head coach, is missing a major Sochi star and hopes to end a losing streak to Canada.

  8. How to watch Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman’s comeback gymnastics meet

    Mar 27, 2015, 10:13 AM EDT

    Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman Getty Images

    The Olympic champions are slated to compete for the first time since London 2012 this weekend.

  9. Yuzuru Hanyu tops World Championships short program; Jason Brown leads Americans

    Mar 27, 2015, 9:54 AM EDT

    Yuzuru Hanyu Getty Images

    The U.S. men are unlikely to secure three spots for the 2016 World Championships.

  10. Madison Chock, Evan Bates take ice dance silver at World Championships

    Mar 27, 2015, 9:53 AM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    A French couple became the youngest World champions in 40 years.

  11. U.S. women struggle, trail Russian brilliance after World Championships short program

    Mar 26, 2015, 10:14 AM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Elizaveta Tuktamysheva landed a triple Axel in one of the greatest short programs of all time.

  12. Canadians win World pairs title; best U.S. finish since 2011

    Mar 26, 2015, 10:01 AM EDT

    AP AP

    The last time Canada won a World title in pairs was before the 2002 judging scandal.

  13. U.S. pairs outside top five after World Championships short program

    Mar 25, 2015, 9:44 AM EDT

    AP AP

    A slight improvement could mark the best U.S. pairs finishes since 2002.

  14. Usain Bolt to race individually in U.S. for first time since 2008

    Mar 25, 2015, 9:13 AM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Bolt’s last appearance in New York produced his first world record.

  15. Madison Chock, Evan Bates top World Championships short dance with personal best

    Mar 25, 2015, 8:53 AM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    The Olympians could become the second U.S. ice dance couple to win a World Championship.

  16. Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir preview World Championships men’s, pairs events

    Mar 24, 2015, 5:15 PM EDT

    AP AP

    The Olympic and World champion returns to the site of a bloody collision.

  17. Boston 2024 calls for statewide referendum for Olympic bid

    Mar 24, 2015, 10:11 AM EDT

    Boston 2024

    Boston will not move forward with an Olympic bid if a majority of state and city residents don’t support it.

  18. Watch USA Luge video promoting fastest sport on ice

    Mar 24, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT

    USA Luge

    Olympians Erin Hamlin, Chris Mazdzer star in an inside look at the sport.

  19. U.S. would top 2016 Olympic medal standings in virtual projection

    Mar 24, 2015, 9:27 AM EDT

    Rio 2016

    Tuesday marked 500 days out from the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.

  20. Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir preview World Championships women’s, ice dance events

    Mar 23, 2015, 5:50 PM EDT

    Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds Getty Images

    Three U.S. women have a shot at the podium, and an American ice dance couple could win gold.