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.

Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin meet to discuss rivalry

Lindsey Vonn, MIkaela Shiffrin
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ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Over hot chocolate, Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin recently had their first real heart-to-heart chat.

Among the topics discussed in a New Zealand coffee shop were family, friends, “girl stuff” — as Shiffrin put it — and, of course, ski racing.

Throughout the season, these two American teammates could very well be at the top of the overall standings. Might come down to the very end, too.

No bitterness, they maintain. No nastiness, either. Just a robust rivalry.

“How will it be going head-to-head? It’s exciting to find out,” said the 20-year-old Shiffrin, who will be a big favorite in a World Cup giant slalom race Friday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Live Extra) on home snow, along with two slalom events over the weekend. “If we were to go head-to-head, I have a feeling it could be one of those things where she’s not going to give it to me and I’m sure as heck not going to give it to her.”

For years, Shiffrin was touted as the next Vonn. Well, Shiffrin’s fulfilled those lofty expectations, capturing the slalom title at the 2013 world championships, Olympic gold in the slalom at the 2014 Sochi Games and then defending her world title last February in Beaver Creek, Colorado.

This season, Shiffrin ventures into Vonn’s territory by adding some speed events, beginning next week with a super-G at Lake Louise, Alberta.

MORE: FIS World Cup TV and live streaming schedule

Among those who believe Shiffrin’s ready for the jump to speed is Vonn.

“She’s just a great skier and she’s obviously extremely talented,” said the 31-year-old Vonn, who’s healed from breaking her left ankle three months ago in training and a bite on her right thumb that required stitches after breaking up a fight between her dogs. “She has such a great touch on snow and such a solid technique.

“I’m sure she’s going to do phenomenal in speed as well.”

High praise from Vonn, the four-time overall champion. Then again, she doesn’t see this rivalry as anything but healthy.

Being a decade older than Shiffrin, Vonn wants to be a “resource” for her young compatriot.

“We both have a lot of respect for each other,” said Vonn, the all-time winningest female World Cup racer who will compete only in the GS this weekend. “We’ll see how the season shapes up. It would be really great for ski racing if two Americans were fighting for the overall.”

The paths of Shiffrin and Vonn haven’t crossed all that much over the years. That’s partly because of Vonn’s serious knee injury, which kept her out of the Sochi Games. And when Vonn has been back, they’ve traveled in different circles since Shiffrin works so closely with the technical side.

That’s why Vonn invited Shiffrin out for cocoa during training over the summer. A chance to get better acquainted.

Vonn’s take on their meeting: “It was a really nice conversation. It wasn’t anything in particular. Just kind of a nice, easy conversation.”

Shiffrin was flattered a skier she’s long considered one of her idols wanted to sit down with her.

“Lindsey’s made more sacrifices than anybody else in order to get the job done,” Shiffrin said. “I respect that a lot.”

With defending overall champion Anna Fenninger sidelined by a knee injury and Tina Maze taking a break, that opens the door for a Vonn-Shiffrin showdown.

“If she beats me for the overall, you know what, cheers to that,” Shiffrin said. “It’s like, ‘You’re a really good ski racer and a really good athlete and there’s a reason you’re winning.’ Hopefully, I’ll be able to give her some good competition.”

Off to a great start. Shiffrin finished second in the giant slalom last month in Soelden, Austria. Valuable points, especially with Vonn skipping it to give her ankle more time to mend.

Shiffrin believes she can be on the podium in all three races this weekend. No American has finished in the top three during a World Cup race at Aspen since Julia Mancuso was third in 2011. What’s more, no American has won at this venue since Tamara McKinney in 1981.

“The podium is definitely a possibility. Maybe more than a possibility,” Shiffrin said. “But things have to line up.”

WATCH: Yuzuru Hanyu sets short program record; Wagner in medal territory at NHK Trophy

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Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu set the new short program world record – raising his own world record by about five points from when he set it in Sochi – to lead the men’s field at the NHK Trophy in Nagano, Japan.

The 20-year-old landed two clean quads, one in combination, and a triple Axel in front of a home crowd. In his other Grand Prix appearance, two of those three jumps received zero points.

China’s Jin Boyang and Hanyu’s countryman Takahito Mura sit in second and third place, respectively, though Hanyu has built a 10-point lead heading into tonight’s free program. Jin landed two quads and a triple Axel cleanly, a program that surely would lead in any other field, while Mura was clean, too.

By holding off the competition, which seems likely, Hanyu can clinch a berth into the Grand Prix Final, where he is reigning champion.

Richard Dornbush and Grant Hochstein are the only U.S. men in the competition, as Jason Brown withdrew due to a back sprain. Dornbush is seventh and Hochstein is eighth before tonight’s free program.

2015 Worlds silver medalist Satoko Miyahara of Japan leads the ladies’ field after the short program over the other Japanese skater highlighting the field, Mao Asada (currently fourth), and two of the U.S.’ skaters. Courtney Hicks is second while Ashley Wagner is third. Vancouver Olympian Mirai Nagasu is fifth.



Miyahara landed three triples in her short program, compared to Hicks and Wagner, who both turned out of their planned triple-triple combinations. Nagasu was relatively clean in her short program. Asada fell on her signature triple Axel attempt and singled her planned triple Lutz.

Asada made her return to competition this season after winning the 2014 World title but skipping the subsequent season. Both Asada and Wagner can clinch berths to the Grand Prix Final by winning medals of any color in tonight’s free program. More on that process here.

It seems it is impossible to discuss figure skating results without mentioning the Russian dominance in the ladies’ field; however, in the short program, their competitors sat a lackluster seventh, ninth, and 11th in a field of 11. Russia’s Maria Artemieva, Alena Leonova and Anna Pogorilaya each had at least one fall in their short programs.

Canadian pairs team Meaghan Duhamel and Eric Radford are in the hunt for their ninth straight international win and a Grand Prix Final berth – a feat made a lot easier after the withdrawl of Olympic pairs champs Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov of Russia. The Canadian pair leads over Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim of the United States, currently second, also looking for a berth with a medal in Japan.

Men’s free skate — Saturday, 2:30 a.m. ET (start order here)
Women’s free skate — Saturday, 5:35 a.m. ET (start order here)