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

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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.

Martina Hingis loses another Olympic doubles partner

Martina Hingis, Belinda Bencic
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Martina Hingis‘ Olympic return is off to a rough start, and the Games are still nine days away.

Hingis, the five-time Grand Slam singles champion who is set to go 20 years between Olympic appearances, has lost her slated doubles and mixed doubles partners on consecutive days. Hingis is not playing singles in Rio.

Belinda Bencic became the fourth female tennis player ranked in the top 20, and the second Swiss player of either gender in as many days, to withdraw from the Olympics on Wednesday.

Bencic, a 19-year-old ranked No. 16, is behind in training following a wrist injury suffered at Wimbledon last month, according to her social media.

On Tuesday, Roger Federer withdrew from the Olympics, citing a knee injury.

Whether Hingis will play with another partner hasn’t been announced.

Women’s top 20 players out of the Olympics
No. 5 Simona Halep (Zika concern)
No. 7 Victoria Azarenka (Pregnancy)
No. 17 Karolina Pliskova (Zika concern)

MORE: Complete U.S. Olympic team roster

Bubba Watson, U.S. golfers get pep talk from Olympic legend Dan Jansen

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The world’s best golfers are in Springfield, N.J., this week for the season’s final major, the PGA Championship, which was pushed up a couple weeks to accommodate golf’s return to the Olympics.

The four men set to represent the U.S. – Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar – attended an Olympic meeting, where they were able to try on their Team USA gear and speak with an Olympic legend, speed skater Dan Jansen. Watson left inspired.

“He’s a legend; he’s a legend for America,” Watson said. “Some of the things that he battled, he talked about what he battled. Not just winning. Who cares about winning a medal. Just what he battled trying to get there, what he battled in family life and things like that. It was pretty amazing to hear his stories and how he came through it.”

Jansen won a 1,000m speed skating gold medal at the 1994 Lillehammer Games, the shining moment in a career that had previously been defined by disappointment. He finished fourth in the 500m in 1984, and fell in both the 500m and 1,000m in 1988. Those mishaps came after he learned of the death of his sister, Jane, who died of leukemia the morning of the 500m final.

He just missed a medal again with a fourth-place result in the 500m in 1992, where he finished 26th in the 1,000m. Two years later, after the Winter Games shifted to be in even years not coinciding with the Summer Games, Jansen placed eighth in the 500m. But in the final event of his Olympic career, he set a 1,000m world record en route to his first and only Olympic medal.

You can see more of Jansen’s story here.

Jansen acknowledged that the golfers didn’t grow up dreaming about playing golf in the Olympics since it wasn’t in the program until recently. But now that they’re going, they’re representing their country just like everyone else on Team USA.

“All four of us are pretty passionate about it,” Watson said. “Any time you can play and represent your country to that level; obviously we represent our country this week, but to that level, a higher level, it’s pretty special.”

Watson reiterated his stance on having no reservations about going to the Rio Games, while the top four golfers in the world, and many others, pulled out, mostly due to concerns over the Zika virus.

“I mean, if they would have asked me to be the towel boy, I would have went to the Olympics. But again, my situation is different than everybody else’s. I can’t have kids. We adopted our kids and I’m not fearful of crime or anything like that. So there was no fear at all. It was a go,” he said.

The U.S. golfers are getting their custom USA gear ready:

MORE: Bubba Watson gets a jetpack to fly around the golf course