Ted Ligety carved his place in Olympic history

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — A couple years ago, they made a rules change in the giant slalom. Citing the interest of athlete safety, they made the skiers change to longer, straighter skis.

Those skis are way harder to turn. Ted Ligety, the American who had ruled the giant slalom, complained bitterly.

And then he figured out a way to ski on those new skis, lower and longer in the turns, that further separated himself from everyone else in the world. He could now win races by astonishing margins.

At Wednesday’s men’s super-G at Rosa Khutor, Ligety put on a clinic to win the first American Alpine skiing gold of these Olympics. Indeed, he won big. It was one of the great moments of the 2014 Games. Here, for the entire world to bear witness, was sheer excellence — the excellence the sport demands as well as the excellence the man demands of himself.

VIDEO: Watch Ted Ligety’s giant slalom run

It was, in a word, awesome.

It also marked a profound moment in U.S. ski history — past, present and future.

Bode Miller announced after the race that his knees are bothering him and he is done at these Olympics; he will not ski Saturday’s slalom. He said, however, he intends to finish out the season. Miller is 36. There can be no question that — whatever Miller’s future — Ligety, 29, is now positioned to be The Man on the U.S. Ski Team.

“He carries so much speed and just doesn’t really make mistakes. Those are the things that separate him,” Miller said when asked to describe Ligety’s GS skiing.

“Other guys carry speed for a couple turns. They struggle a little bit. He just carries it smooth, top to bottom. He consistently puts time on guys the whole way down. He’s not doing a miracle in one section. He just pulls time on top, pulls more time in the middle, pulls more time on the bottom. There’s no question who is the best GS skier right now.”

Ligety now has two Olympic gold medals. His first came in the combined in Torino in 2006. He and Andrea Mead Lawrence, who won the slalom and the GS in Oslo in 1952, are now the only two American skiers with two Olympic gold medals in Alpine.

VIDEO: Ligety’s road to giant slalom gold

Ligety is the first man in Olympic history — no matter the country — to have won gold in giant slalom and the combined. Not Hermann Maier, Toni Sailer, Jean-Claude Killy, Kjetil Andre Aamodt, Lasse Kjus, or anyone else you might name.

You can bet this first Olympic GS gold for an American male skier is a big deal for the U.S. Ski Team program — there are potential donors and board members who flew all the way here through this weekend, ignoring all the controversies, just to see Ligety and 18-year-old sensation Mikaela Shiffrin. Ligety held up his end of the deal. Shiffrin, the world slalom champ, finished fifth Tuesday in the women’s GS, not her best event. She goes Friday in the slalom.

If development doesn’t seem all that sexy, consider this: Ligety and a few others on the U.S. team have trained here, on this very hill, a total of two weeks over the past two years. One particular turn on the second run gave a number of the racers fits. The first time Ligety trained here, he took five runs. And, as he said, “I didn’t finish a single one of my five runs because I was trying to take all the speed off that. So I knew how big a jump that was and how critical that was to the course.“

The medal Wednesday also means the U.S. Alpine team has won four medals in Sochi. One more ties for the second-best performance ever (the 1984 team). The 2010 team won eight — far and away best-ever.

Another slice of history: it was precisely 30 years ago — Feb. 19, 1984 — that Phil Mahre won gold in the slalom in Sarajevo, brother Steve taking silver.

VIDEO: Ted Ligety, 1-on-1

Because of the 2006 gold, it wasn’t so much that Ligety came to Sochi with the burden of having to prove himself at an Olympics. Moreover, he has ruled giant slalom for seven seasons. Beyond which, at last year’s World Championships, he won three golds — in the GS, super-G and super-combined, the first man to win three world golds since Killy in 1968.

The expectation here, though, was simple: in the United States, people tend to pay attention to Alpine skiing in a big way once every four years.

Welcome back to the Olympics, Mr. Ligety.

“In some kind of way,” said Bill Marolt, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, Ligety “needed this gold medal here to confirm all that he has done.”

“It creates a lot of pressure, but on the other hand it creates a lot of opportunity. The thing neat about Ted,” Marolt said, “is that he has this unbelievable ability to focus and, in the moment, grab the whole prize. He just represents all that we believe in — get in unbelievable shape physically, work like hell and stay in the moment. It was awesome to be part of.”

Earlier at these Games, Ligety had a shot at a medal in the super-combined but uncharacteristically did not ski aggressively; he finished 12th. A few days later in the super-G, he took 14th.

WATCH: Ted Ligety peaking at right time in Sochi

“The combined was definitely a huge disappointment, mostly because I knew I could have skied a lot faster,” Ligety said, adding that in the super-G he skied “great” but simply made a mistake. “That’s frustrating but at least I knew I was skiing fast. I’ve known coming in here my GS was in a good spot. I’m happy to be able to ski the way I know how to ski.”

The women’s giant slalom Monday was messy — rain, snow, sleet, fog. Conditions Wednesday morning were perfect — bright, blue skies with the snow icy, just the way racers like it. It was exactly 32 degrees at race time, the snow exactly 32, too.

Ligety further had the decided advantage of going No. 7 Tuesday morning in Run 1, after his main rivals, France’s Alexis Pinturault and Austria’s Marcel Hirscher.

Pinturault went No. 1, finishing in 1:22.4; Hirscher No. 3, 1:22.47.

Ligety then put down a run of incredible aesthetic and athletic grace and power. A slow-motion camera would show his body perfectly in alignment with the mountain as he weaved through the gates.

The plan, he said, was to “really just nail a couple of the big rolls,” and be intelligent everywhere else in assessing risk.

“The hill,” he would say later, “is not so difficult skiing-wise. It’s difficult tactically. I was trying to be smart over those big tactical terrain changes and then push as hard as I could in the sections where I could take some risk and I knew I could push hard.”

RELATED: Rivals help Ted Ligety evolve as a racer

When he crossed, the scoreboard said 1:21.08.

He was 1.33 seconds ahead of the field. There were, literally, gasps and oohs and ahhs from seasoned watchers in the press room. In ski racing, 1.33 seconds might as well be a year.

By the time the field wound through the top 30, only Ondrej Bank of the Czech Republic was even within shouting distance— the sound of Bank’s skis telling the story of his slash-and-dash down the course from the No. 28 hole to within 93-hundredths of a second. Bank’s best-ever World Cup finish: a giant-slalom fifth in December, 2010.

Davide Simoncelli of Italy stood third, 1.27 seconds back. His last World Cup win? Eight years ago.

Germany’s Stefan Luitz actually had gotten to within 59-hundredths of a second but then straddled the final gate with his right ski. He was DQ’d. “Maybe,” Luitz said, “I let my head go.”

How good was Ligety in Run 1? He led every one of the four splits. Once more — that lead was 93-hundredths. As an exercise in math, 93-hundredths covered every guy in the field from third through 21st — Simoncelli, 1.27 behind, through American Tim Jitloff, 2.15 back.

RELATED: Model Olympian – Ted Ligety

Hirscher, leading the current World Cup GS standings, finished Run 1 in seventh, 1.39 behind. Pinturault, second in the season standings, ended Run 1 in sixth, 1.36 back.

Miller was never a factor. He finished Run 1 2.56 behind, Run 2.53, in 20th. He said his left knee in particular wasn’t feeling quite right; his precise word was “jankied.” Also, he and his tech team, after watching the women’s GS Tuesday, figured on soft snow, and then came out Wednesday to find conditions were instead excellent. After the first run, he said, “I knew after four turns, Jesus, I’m in trouble.”

Ligety, meanwhile, said between runs he no longer had “to take the mega-risk,” adding,  “It’s really important to still go as hard in the sections you can so you’re making up time in the normal turns and just be smart to carry speed through those really difficult tactical sections.”

He also said, for emphasis, “You can’t let up in ski racing. Ski racing is the kind of thing where you can blow leads really quickly. And nothing is truly safe.”

He did not let up. He almost got caught on a right-footed turn about a third of the way down Run 2 but saved himself from what would have been a catastrophic fall and, again, because he knew the hill, ran hard but intelligently, giving back time with only the 14th-fastest in Run 2.

RELATED: Ted Ligety’s extraordinary 2013 season

Hirscher would finish fourth, just out of the medals; Pinturault would get third. Another French skier, Steve Missillier, would get second.

The final difference Wednesday between first and second? A whopping 48-hundredths of a second. The slo-mo cameras, again, were so revealing — Ligety’s skis, in a beautiful physics experiment, gliding along at a 90-degree angle to the slopes.

“Today,” Ligety said, “was awesome. There’s really no other way to put it.”

Lance Armstrong lawyers want Greg LeMond, Betsy Andreu excluded from trial

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lance Armstrong’s $100 million fraud trial is months away, yet his fight with the government and former teammate-turned-rival Floyd Landis is heating up.

Armstrong, who was stripped of his 2000 Olympic bronze medal and seven Tour de France titles for doping, wants to bar potential testimony and evidence from some of his most dogged critics.

That includes the blistering U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report that led to his downfall and former Tour de France champion Greg LeMond, who now stands as the only American to have officially won the race.

Landis, who tipped investigators to Armstrong’s cheating back in 2010, wants to prevent Armstrong from telling jurors about his own doping history and motivation to file a lawsuit that could put more than $20 million in his pocket.

Trial is scheduled for November in federal court in Washington, and lawyers for both sides recently filed a series of motions asking U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper to exclude some key evidence.

Landis initially sued Armstrong in 2010, alleging Armstrong violated the cycling team’s U.S. Postal Service contract by using performance-enhancing drugs. The government joined in 2013 after Armstrong admitted using steroids and other banned performance-enhancing drugs and techniques to win the Tour de France seven times and become the world’s dominant bicycle racer from 1999-2005. The government wants to recover more than $30 million the Postal Service paid to sponsor Armstrong’s team and will seek triple damages.

Armstrong’s cheating was exposed and detailed in a 2012 U.S Anti-Doping Agency report that included sworn testimony from several of his former teammates. He was stripped of his Tour de France victories, banned from competition and has paid an estimated $20 million to settle various lawsuits.

Armstrong’s lawyers now call the USADA report “inadmissible hearsay” for the federal case and say it was written to satisfy the motives of an agency out to get him. They notably object to the report’s summation that Armstrong led the most “most sophisticated” doping program in sports history.

Even if the report is blocked, Armstrong has admitted and provided sworn testimony about his performance-enhancing drug use.

Armstrong also wants to block testimony from Betsy Andreu, the wife of former Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu. She was one of the first to provide sworn testimony about Armstrong’s drug use in a 2005 lawsuit, and has been a prominent critic of Armstrong’s past efforts to intimidate anyone who raised the specter of his doping. Armstrong’s lawyers call her a publicity seeker who blames Armstrong for her husband not having a better career.

Betsy Andreu said she hasn’t done TV interviews about Armstrong since 2013 and turned down a book deal.

“It’s been well established that Lance will stop at nothing to discredit my husband and me because of our uncompromising integrity,” she told The Associated Press. “Lance tried to shut me up by bullying me to the point of breaking me. He didn’t succeed then, he will not succeed now.”

LeMond’s presence at trial could be explosive as he has clashed fiercely with both Armstrong and Landis in the past. Armstrong’s lawyers want him out.

“While LeMond is well-versed in the prevalence of doping throughout the sport during the relevant time period (1997-2004) and still owns the record for the fastest time trial in Tour de France history, he has no personal knowledge regarding Armstrong, the USPS sponsorship agreement, or invoices submitted for sponsorship payments,” Armstrong’s lawyers wrote.

Kathy LeMond told the AP her husband has intimate knowledge of Postal Service contracting in the mid-1990s and the expectation by the government that teams were expected to be clean. LeMond was retired when the same group that organized Armstrong’s team first approached him about having a role in a Postal Service team, then froze him out, she said.

“They asked him to use his name to try to get a U.S.-based team,” Kathy LeMond said. “We have those documents … We gave it all to the Justice Department.”

The government wants the judge to block some of Armstrong’s evidence as well, including two reports commissioned by the Postal Service during the team sponsorship. Those reports claim the sponsorship was worth more than $100 million in global exposure, leading Armstrong to claim he owes the government nothing. The government argues those reports should be disallowed as “hearsay” that lack expert testimony to support them.

The government also wants to prevent him from attacking Landis’ character and motivation. Landis’ 2006 Tour de France victory was stripped after he was caught using synthetic testosterone. He initially claimed innocence and asked the public to finance his defense. Landis was later prosecuted for fraud and paid back more than $475,000.

As the whistleblower against Armstrong, Landis stands to pocket up to 25 percent of any damages awarded.

“Armstrong should not be allowed to deflect the jury’s attention from his own misdeeds by putting Landis on trial and introducing evidence to cast him in a bad light,” the government wrote.

Dallas attorney Matthew Orwig, a former federal prosecutor, said whistleblowers are “rarely totally pure” and attacking their character is a common legal tactic.

Even though Landis filed the initial lawsuit, the government has said it doesn’t plan to call him as a witness. The government should consider presenting Landis’ background instead of letting Armstrong do it, Orwig said.

“Let them hear it from you instead of the other side,” Orwig said. “It seems to inevitably come out.”

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South Korea president calls for North Korea at PyeongChang Olympics

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea President Moon Jae-in said Saturday he hopes to see North Korean athletes at next year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea to ease tensions over the North’s nuclear program.

Moon made the comments during the opening ceremony of the world taekwondo championships in the South Korean town of Muju, where a North Korean delegation led by International Olympic Committee member Chang Ung was also present.

The championships, which will feature a performance by the North Korean taekwondo demonstration team, mark the first sports exchange between the Koreas since the liberal Moon took office in May.

Moon has expressed a desire to use the Feb. 9-25 Pyeongchang Olympics to reach out to North Korea, with relations between the two at their lowest point in decades. During his stay in the South, Chang is expected to meet South Korean officials to discuss cooperation at the Winter Olympics.

“If North Korean athletes participate in the Pyeongchang Olympics, I think it would greatly contribute in realizing Olympic values, which are about bringing humanity together and promoting world peace,” said Moon.

He recalled key moments in sports diplomacy between the Koreas, including when they sent unified teams to the world table tennis and youth soccer championships in 1991, and their athletes marching together during the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Participation in Pyeongchang could “provide a turning point for the reconciliation between the South and North,” Moon said. “I sincerely ask the IOC and (IOC member) Chang who are here with us today for their strong consideration and cooperation.”

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