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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.

Medals or mosquitoes? Zika still talk of Olympic golf

Rory McIlroy
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Olympic qualifying for golf ends in seven weeks, at which time players will have to determine if medals outweigh mosquitoes.

For now, there is only concern.

Rory McIlroy was the latest player to say Zika was in the back of his mind. In an interview with the BBC after his Irish Open victory, he said he has been reading up on the mosquito-borne virus, which has been linked to serious birth defects. McIlroy is engaged, and he said they might be starting a family in the next few years.

“I have to monitor that situation,” he said.

Masters champion Danny Willett was the next to weigh in. Asked about it Tuesday at the BMW PGA Championship, the 28-year-old from England said he was keeping on top of it. Willett’s wife, Nicole, had their first child just 11 days before he slipped on the green jacket.

“It’s not great, is it? There’s going to be 500,000 people watching the Olympics, and you have 11,000 athletes right in the heart of where it’s at,” Willett said. “If it turns out that it would be a massive threat to myself or to Nic or to the little man, then I probably wouldn’t go. Family comes first.

“But as it stands at the minute, I think everything should be OK.”

The Zika virus is in the news everywhere, which goes beyond the standard media outlets.

The International Golf Federation posted a two-page update on its website last month, and it is passing along Zika-related material from the International Olympic Committee and the World Health Organization to tours and player liaisons.

Andy Levinson, executive director of USA Golf, said Tuesday that updates from WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are posted in the weekly bulletins left in lockers and on the “Players Links” website, where PGA Tour players get other pertinent information they don’t want to miss – like tee times, and FedEx Cup points, and where to leave their courtesy cars.

Two weeks ago at The Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s doctor was in player dining for one-on-ones on Zika.

Vijay Singh made a passing reference to Zika last month when the 53-year-old Fijian decided not to play. Marc Leishman of Australia also mentioned Zika, and for good reason. His wife nearly died last year of toxic shock syndrome and her immune system remains weakened.

The other players to pull out — Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel — cited a busy schedule or family priorities.

Ask a player a question, and there’s bound to be an answer, even if it’s not entirely informed. McIlroy said he was planning to get “injections” on Wednesday so that “I will be immunized for whatever — if I do get bitten by a mosquito down there.”

There is no vaccine for the Zika virus.

IGF executive director Antony Scanlon said he was in Rio de Janeiro a few weeks ago for meetings and saw workers spraying “an unbelievable amount of anti-mosquito” repellant around the various venues. He also repeated the timing — August is the tail end of winter in Brazil, and mosquitoes are not expected to be as prevalent.

Scanlon said he was most curious by the silence from the other side — the women.

“If anyone is at risk, it’s the ladies,” Scanlon said Tuesday from London. “We’ve heard nothing from them. I’m sure they’ve got concerns. And we’re distributing as much information as we can to the players.”

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said as much two weeks ago during an Olympic news conference. He said five or six players have asked him about Zika, though none has said it would keep her from Rio. In an email Tuesday, he said not much has changed.

“They have been receiving regular updates on the topic,” Whan said. “No player has suggested she is not coming (at least not to me). But it is certainly a concern.”

It could be another example that the Olympics mean more to the women, who rarely get a stage as large as this and have a stronger tradition of competing for country in what was the first truly global tour.

Various headlines made it sound as though McIlroy and Willett might skip the Olympics because of Zika, and while their answers allowed some wiggle room, the context of their statements suggested nothing has changed.

At least not yet.

“We’re down to go and hopefully they can give us some proper guidelines as to how to keep it at bay and keep it under control so that it doesn’t ruin what could be potentially a fantastic Olympics,” Willett said.

“Not as apprehensive as I once was,” McIlroy said about the Olympics. “As it gets closer, I am relishing the thought of going down there and competing for gold.”

This much is clear — golfers currently eligible for the Olympics are having to study more than hole locations and wind direction.

MORE: WHO: Olympics OK to go on

Russian Olympic champion positive in Beijing doping retest

Anna Chicherova
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London Olympic high jump champion Anna Chicherova is one of many Russians among 31 athletes overall who tested positive in recent retests of Beijing Olympic samples, according to Russian news agency TASS.

TASS named nine 2008 Olympic medalists among 14 Russian athletes, citing a Russian TV report, including eight medalists in track and field, with Chicherova being the superstar of the group.

“Perhaps it’s just a mistake,” Chicherova said, according to an Associated Press translation of a Russian TV report. “I can’t explain how my doping test gave a positive result. I’ve competed a lot since then and given hundreds of samples.”

Last week, the International Olympic Committee said 31 unnamed athletes from 12 nations across six sports failed drug tests in retesting of 454 samples from 2008 using the latest drug-testing methods.

Chicherova, 33, took high jump gold at the London Games and bronze in Beijing. She is one of two track and field athletes to earn an individual-event medal at the last five World Championships and last two Olympics. The other is Usain Bolt.

Chicherova, who has had no previously widespread reported doping history, would be one of Russia’s top Olympic track and field medal hopes in Rio, should the ban on Russian track and field athletes competing be lifted before the Games.

Russia is expected to learn if it will be allowed to send a track and field team to Rio on June 17.

“The Ministry of Sport is extremely disappointed to hear the speculation that Russian athletes are among those found to have violated anti-doping rules at the 2008 Beijing Olympics after re-testing their samples,” the Russian Ministry of Sport said in a statement through Burson-Marsteller public relations firm. “Any athletes found cheating should face corresponding sanctions.

“We have taken numerous steps to eradicate the issue of doping, and understand that the roots of the problem, particularly in athletics, go back to the past.”

MORE: Russia track and field boss: ’50-60 percent’ chance of Olympics