The first of 10 alpine ski races stretching over two weeks at the Sochi Olympics got under way Sunday with the glamour event - the men’s downhill. Our correspondent watched the action at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center in the mountains above Sochi and has a report.
After a 15-minute delay because of a gondola problem, the race began under cloudy skies and a relatively warm 5 degrees Celsius before an enthusiastic crowd.
There was an expectation among many of the competitors that veteran American Bode Miller - a five-time Olympic medalist - was the man to beat. At age 36, when few skiers compete in the speed event, he had had the fastest training run the day before. And starting from the 15th position he had the better split times at the top of the course than those who skied ahead of him, but he could not maintain the speed on the lower part and ended up eighth (2:06.75).
Austrian Matthias Mayer was the surprise gold medal winner in a time of 2:06.23, only six-100ths of a second faster than silver medalist Christof Innerhofer of Italy. That’s the equivalent of just more than one and a half meters. Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud got the bronze (2:06:33).
World Cup downhill leader this season, Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, was fourth and American Travis Ganong was fifth.
The top skiers reached speeds of more than 135 kilometers per hour on the fastest part of the 3,500-meter course, and averaged nearly 100 kilometers per hour.
Mayer said he had analyzed Miller’s training runs, especially his speed to the first intermediate section of the course.
“Bode was unbelievable yesterday and everybody knew Bode could be the Olympic winner," Mayer said. "But I knew in the two last intermediate times I could be very fast. Therefore, I stopped my training yesterday and saved some power for today. I think that was good and was very important for me today.”
It was Mayer’s first career win in 66 men’s alpine ski races, and now he has bragging rights in his family - his father Helmut won silver in the men’s super giant slalom at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
Mayer said those skiers who had earlier starts Sunday had better conditions on the lower part of the course, as the temperature rose three degrees (Celsius) in the first hour.
“I think the numbers about 10 had a little bit advantage because the sun was coming out," Mayer said. "Yeah, because in the last flat there was wet snow, or soft snow, and that is where for a few hundredths of a second we had an advantage.”
Innerhoffer surprisingly was able to get to the podium despite starting from the number 22 spot. And he showed a huge display of emotion after he crossed the finish line and saw on the big video screen that he had moved into second place.
But it was an emotion of great joy, not disappointment, he said through a translator, because he was so thrilled to make the Olympic podium.
“My goal was to win some medal in such an incredible event. My real desire was to get a medal here. This is why I let my emotions loose because I was extremely happy to have the best run ever today (for myself) on this important day. My goal was to get a medal whether it was silver, gold or bronze. I did not really mind.”
Innerhoffer became the first Italian to win an Olympic medal in the men’s downhill in 38 years.
The women’s downhill ski race is scheduled for Wednesday.