- Alpine Skiing
Down to a digit: Finger-length faster could have broken Olympic women's downhill golden tie
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The Olympic women’s downhill course here at Rosa Khutor measures out at 2713 meters, or precisely 8900 feet. That’s just shy of a mile and three quarters.
On Wednesday, the best racers hit speeds of more than 60 miles per hour.
On the one hand, it’s all a math problem. You win by getting down the mountain faster than anyone else. On the other, it’s an exercise in fear versus logic. You strap on boots, fix your feet on sticks and throw yourself down a river of ice, hope your mountain-men technicians have figured out the right wax and try to slice down that ice all in one piece, the orange safety nets flashing by, the rest of you wrapped in nothing but Lycra, your head in a bobble of plastic. See how that feels.
The alpine ski show makes for a fantastic traveling camp that simultaneously includes elements of the backwoods and high-tech, a mash-up of the best and not-so of American and European cultures with the ever-present scent of danger, a reminder of the fragility of the human condition rooted in the need to test what the soul is capable of against the power of the mountain. That’s why it always verges on the edge, literally and figuratively: can you believe this? On Wednesday, it tipped over.
Embedded video_content_type: Tina Maze: pop star, model, gold medalist
In a first in Olympic alpine ski history, the downhill ended in a tie.
Another Swiss, Lara Gut, took third, in 1:41.67.
Said Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, the super-combined gold medalist two days ago who leads the season World Cup overall standings, who finished 13th Wednesday, “It’s just crazy and cool.”
Because of the tie, there is no silver medal.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Fit to be tied: Tina Maze, Dominique Gisin share Sochi downhill gold
A gold-medal tie in the Olympics is — obviously — rare but not unheard-of.
The Wednesday downhill marks the eighth time two gold medals will have been awarded at the Winter Olympics. Note the phrasing. As detailed by the authoritative Olympstats website, it takes into account the duplicate golds awarded amid the 2002 scandal involving Canadian and Russian pairs skaters.
There have been 25 previous medal ties at the Winter Games — seven gold, 11 silver, seven bronze. In 1968, three U.S. female speed skaters ended up in a three-way tie for silver in the 500 meters.
At the Summer Games, a tie for first or — again, note the phrasing — two or more gold medals has occurred 26 times.
Now some math, and fun with facts and figures, mixed in with Olympic alpine history:
That difference between that first-place tie and Lara Gut’s third, that measly one-tenth of a second: that adds up to 2.67 meters, or 8.76 feet.
The tie knocks off the famed Nagano 1998 women’s super-G for what had been the closest finish in women’s alpine Olympic history — the .01 differential by which American Picabo Street defeated Michaela Dorfmeister.
There has never been a .01 finish in men’s Olympic alpine — .02, yes, the 1994 giant slalom in which Germany’s Markus Wasmeier defeated Switzerland’s Urs Kaelin.
Embedded video_content_type: Tina Maze, Dominique Gisin finish in first ever tie for gold in women’s downhill
In Olympic alpine racing, there have been three ties for second, and one tie for third. The silvers: 1964 women’s giant slalom, 1992 women’s giant slalom, 1998 men’s super-G. The third-place tie: men’s downhill, 1948.
You think skiing and one of the cradles of the sport is — of course — Switzerland. But the Swiss haven’t had an Olympic women’s downhill champion since Michela Figini in Sarajevo. And that was 1984, 30 years ago, when Figini was just 17.
Slovenia had never before won a Winter Olympic gold medal. It had won a combined 10 silver and bronze medals. Maze’s medal is the small European nation’s fourth at these 2014 Games.
Last season, Maze was just unstoppable. She ripped off a record number of World Cup points, 2414, beating the previous record, an even 2000, set by Austria’s Hermann Maier, the “Herminator,” in the 2000 season.
In Maier’s record year, he finished top-3 22 times. Maze finished on the podium 24 times last season.
She won both the super-G and giant slalom titles; she also finished second in slalom and downhill.
This season, however, she has suffered through some very un Tina-like results, several back in the pack finishes, particularly in the slalom. She changed coaches.
In the downhill, there have also been blips: 16th to start the season in Beaver Creek, Colo., 12th last month in Altenmarkt, Austria.
But, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, in the last downhill before the Games, who won? Maze, in a sign of what was to come. “About the Olympics,” she said later, “I was really confident. I know that it’s another world for me.”
Embedded owg_slideshow: Sochi Olympics: Women's downhill
Gisin was eighth Wednesday out of the start gate, before any of the big names got on the course. “I tried to ski free and liberated,” she said.
Gisin then watched, and waited, and smiled nervously for the cameras, as skier after skier failed to beat 1:41.57.
The American Julia Mancuso ran 12th. Two days ago, in the downhill portion of the super-combined, she had run fastest in the field, 1:42.68, en route to a bronze. She started fast Wednesday but then, especially across the middle of the course, lost speed. She finished faster than she had Monday, in 1:42.56, but as she said, “I wasn’t as on it as I was in the super-combined.”
The explanation? “For me, I’m a lot more of an instinct skier. I think I just thought too much today.”
Gut ran 17th. When she saw after crossing that she was ever-so-close, it was clear she was disappointed. Later, she had shaken it off.
“I’m sorry if at the beginning I didn’t seem too happy about that. We’re athletes. We always want to be first,” she said, adding a moment later that winning a medal was a “dream.”
Maze ran 20th.
Gisin, in the leader’s box, watched as Maze cut across and down the hill. The big screen showed Maze ahead on the top of the course. Then as Maze tore toward the red line it got very, very, very close.
Gisin would say later, “I don’t think you can race for hundredths. A hundredth is always luck. Luck comes back once in your life. One time you are on one side. One time you are on the other. Maybe once you are just in the middle. Like today.”
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Echoed Maze, “I think that’s the challenge of our sport. Hundredths count.”
Not thousandths. In baseball, for instance, they go to the thousandths to determine, for instance, who wins a batting title. They don’t do that in alpine skiing. And no one is looking for any change, Gisin saying, “We are fine with hundredths. I wouldn’t change to thousandths. It’s OK.”
8900 feet. 1:41.57. “Maybe just one finger,” Maze said. “Maybe just a hand. And you can change the color of a medal.”