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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.

Reaction to Olympic ruling not to ban Russia

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MARCH 07:  The flag of Russia is raised during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games at Fisht Olympic Stadium on March 7, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
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MOSCOW (AP) — The International Olympic Committee has opted against imposing a blanket ban on the Russian team for next month’s games in Rio de Janeiro.

Meeting after World Anti-Doping Agency reports alleged widespread doping and state-backed cover-ups of failed drug tests by Russians, the IOC ruled that a ban across all sports would unjustly punish clean athletes in Russia.

However, the IOC has placed restrictions on the Russian team, including a measure barring the selection of any athletes who have previously served doping bans. It also set out eligibility criteria for the various international federations of Olympic sports.

Here is a look at the reaction in Russia and around the world:

“An athlete should not suffer and should not be sanctioned for a system in which he was not implicated and where he can show that he was not implicated…At the end of the day, we have to be able to look in the eye of the individual athletes concerned by this decision.” – IOC President Thomas Bach, a former Olympic fencer, tells reporters why the IOC did not impose a blanket ban on Russia.

“When a crime is committed, the guilty party is tried and punished, but you don’t put his family, friends and acquaintances behind bars just because they knew the criminal or they live in the same town.” – Russian Olympic Committee President Alexander Zhukov in an address to the IOC board ahead of its ruling not to impose a blanket ban.

“Many, including clean athletes and whistleblowers, have demonstrated courage and strength in confronting a culture of state-supported doping and corruption within Russia. Disappointingly, however, in response to the most important moment for clean athletes and the integrity of the Olympic Games, the IOC has refused to take decisive leadership. The decision regarding Russian participation and the confusing mess left in its wake is a significant blow to the rights of clean athletes.” – U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart.

“The IOC decision was to be expected. You can’t behave improperly toward a power like Russia.” – Gennady Alyoshin, a Russian Olympic Committee official, in comments to Tass.

“We are grateful to the IOC for allowing Russian athletes in. I’m sure that the majority of the Russian national team will be able to comply with the criteria.” – Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko.

“Well, that’s the IOC board off my Xmas card list then,” – Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford of Britain on Twitter.

“We have created and been through the process. We know how hard it is emotionally and rationally to get the process right… We continue to stand by to assist and offer advice to any international sports federations.” Sebastian Coe, head of track and field’s governing body, the IAAF, which barred all but one Russian athlete.

“Raising her to the status of a hero is like stupidly spitting in all our faces. So it’s right that she can’t compete at the Olympics. At least one wise decision on track and field has been taken.” – Two-time Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva discusses the IOC’s refusal to let doping whistleblower Yulia Stepanova race in Rio, in comments to R-Sport.

MORE: IOC will not enforce complete ban on Russia for Rio Olympics

IOC will not enforce complete ban on Russia for Rio Olympics

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 27:  Maria Sharapova of the Russia Olympic tennis team carries her country's flag during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on July 27, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — Rejecting calls by anti-doping officials for a complete ban on Russia, Olympic leaders on Sunday gave individual sports federations the task of deciding which athletes should be cleared to compete in next month’s Rio de Janeiro Games.

Citing the need to protect the rights of individual athletes, the International Olympic Committee decided against taking the unprecedented step of excluding Russia’s entire team over allegations of state-sponsored doping. Instead, the IOC left it to 27 international sports federations to make the call on a case-by-case basis.

“Every human being is entitled to individual justice,” IOC President Thomas Bach said after the ruling of his 15-member executive board.

Bach said the IOC had decided instead on a set of “very tough criteria” that could dent Russia’s overall contingent and medal hopes in Rio, where the Olympics will open on Aug. 5.

Under the measures, no Russian athletes who have ever had a doping violation will be allowed into the games, whether or not they have served a sanction, a rule that has not applied to athletes in other countries.

In addition, the international sports federations were ordered to check each Russian athlete’s drug-testing record, with only doping controls conducted outside Russia counting toward eligibility, before authorizing them to compete. Final entry is contingent on approval from an independent sports arbitrator.

The IOC decision was sharply criticized by anti-doping bodies as a sellout that undermines clean athletes and destroys the idea of a level playing field.

World Anti-Doping Agency President Craig Reedie said the organization is “disappointed that the IOC did not heed WADA’s executive committee recommendations” after investigators “exposed, beyond a reasonable doubt, a state-run doping program in Russia that seriously undermines the principles of clean sport.”

Joseph de Pencier, chief executive of the 59-member Institute of National Anti-Doping Organisations, said the IOC “failed to confront forcefully the findings of evidence of state-sponsored doping in Russia corrupting the Russian sport system,” describing it as “a sad day for clean sport.”

U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said the “IOC has refused to take decisive leadership” in a most important moment for the integrity of the Olympic Games and clean athletes.

“The decision regarding Russian participation and the confusing mess left in its wake is a significant blow to the rights of clean athletes,” Tygart said.

Russia’s track and field athletes were already banned by the IAAF, the sport’s governing body, in a decision that was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The IOC accepted that ruling, but would not extend it to other sports.

Russia’s current overall team consists of 387 athletes, a number likely to be significantly reduced by the measure barring Russians who have previously served doping bans.

Calls for a complete ban on Russia intensified after Richard McLaren, a Canadian lawyer commissioned by WADA, issued a report accusing Russia’s sports ministry of overseeing a vast doping program of its Olympic athletes.

McLaren’s investigation, based heavily on evidence from former Moscow doping lab director Grigory Rodchenkov, affirmed allegations of brazen manipulation of Russian urine samples at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, but also found that state-backed doping had involved 28 summer and winter sports from 2011 to 2015.

“An athlete should not suffer and should not be sanctioned for a system in which he was not implicated,” Bach told reporters after Sunday’s meeting, acknowledging the decision “might not please everybody.”

“This is not about expectations,” he said. “This is about doing justice to clean athletes all over the world.”

Asked whether the IOC was being soft on Russia, Bach said: “Read the decision. … You can see how high we set the bar. This is not the end of the story but a preliminary decision that concerns Rio 2016.”

Tygart, however, questioned why the IOC “would pass the baton to sports federations who may lack the adequate expertise or collective will to appropriately address the situation within the short window prior to the games.”

The IOC also rejected the application by Russian whistleblower Yulia Stepanova, an 800-meter runner and former doper who helped expose the doping scandal, to compete under a neutral flag at the games. Stepanova, now living in the United States, competed as an individual athlete at last month’s European Championships in Amsterdam.

But the IOC said Stepanova did not meet the criteria for running under the IOC flag and, because she had been previously banned for doping, did not satisfy the “ethical requirements” to compete in the games. The IOC said it planned to invite Stepanova and her husband, Vitaly Stepanov, a former Russian anti-doping official who also turned whistleblower, to attend the games.

Tygart expressed dismay at the decision to bar Stepanova, describing it as “incomprehensible” and saying it “will undoubtedly deter whistleblowers in the future from coming forward.”

That means only one Russian track and field athlete is eligible to compete in Rio: U.S.-based long jumper Darya Klishina was granted exceptional eligibility by the IAAF because she has been tested outside of Russia.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said “the majority” of Russia’s team complies with the IOC criteria, and estimated “80 percent” of the team regularly undergoes international testing of the kind specified by the IOC.

International federations will have only days to process the Russian cases. Many are still waiting for information from McLaren’s report.

The International Tennis Federation has already said Russia’s eight-member team meets the IOC requirements as the players have been through regular international testing.

Sunday’s measures are still a blow to Russia, which finished third in total medals at the 2012 Olympics.

The team could be without some of its star names in Rio because of the IOC measure barring any Russians who have previously served doping bans. However, the impact on the medal tally is likely to be less severe than the damage caused by the earlier ban on its track team, Russia’s most successful contingent in London four years ago.

Among those set to be ruled out are world champion swimmer Yulia Efimova; 2012 Olympic silver medal-winning weightlifter Tatyana Kashirina; and two-time Olympic bronze medal-winning cyclist Olga Zabelinskaya. All three have previously served doping bans.

Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov presented his case to the IOC board, promising full cooperation with investigations and guaranteeing “a complete and comprehensive restructuring of the Russian anti-doping system.”

He issued a strong plea against a full ban.

“My question is this: If you treat the cancer by cutting off the patient’s head and killing him, do you consider this as a victory in the fight?” he said in remarks released later. “That does not seem like a victory to me.”

In its decision, the IOC also:

– asked the federations to examine the information and names of athletes and sports implicated in the McLaren report, saying any of those implicated should not be allowed into the games.

– said the federations would have to apply their own rules if they want to ban an entire Russian team from their events in Rio, as the IAAF has already done.

– said Russian entries must be examined and upheld by an expert from the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

– ruled that Russian athletes who are cleared for the games will be subjected to a “rigorous additional out-of-competition testing program.”

The IOC also reiterated its “serious concerns” about the weaknesses in the fight against doping, and called on WADA to “fully review their anti-doping systems.” The IOC said it would propose measures for more transparency and independence.

MORE: Russia loses Olympic track and field ban appeal