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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.