KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- At 9:07 Sunday morning, Bode Miller arrived at the bottom of the Olympic downhill course, having completed his pre-race course inspection in just under seven minutes, which is exceptionally fast, even for the mercurial Miller. (By comparison, two-time World Cup overall champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway took nearly 40 minutes to study the track).
Miller stopped just beyond the finish line, bent 45 degrees at the waist and froze in that position for nearly two minutes. There was nobody within 50 yards of him for most of that time, no spectators in the stands, no music playing over the P.A. system. Just a man and his…. well, a man and his something.
Two and a half hours later, Miller came down the course again, much faster on this trip (2 minutes, 6.75 seconds) but not nearly fast enough. This time he stopped further beyond the line and bowed his head for several seconds in what would customarily be construed as a pose reflecting disappointment because he had landed in only sixth place (and would eventually fall to eighth place in the final standings). Or maybe not.
With Miller, everything is subject to interpretation and anguished discussion.
This much is not in dispute: At age 36, in what was almost certainly his final Olympic downhill, Miller wanted a medal, and preferably a gold one. He said as much on the day before the race.
“I’m gonna be ready,” he said. “I want to win.” This was a bold admission from a guy who had spent much of his career upbraiding ski journalists for fixating on “results” over “performance.”
Instead it was Matthias Mayer, the 23-year-old Austrian and son of a 1988 alpine Olympic medalist, who had never so much as earned a top-three podium finish in a World Cup downhill race, who won the gold medal that Miller craved. Italy’s Christoff Innerhofer took the silver and Kjetil Jansrud of Norway the bronze, .19 seconds in front of countryman Svindal, who was considered the co-favorite in the race. With Miller.
U. S. racer Travis Ganong, 25, who in January finished seventh in the legendary Hahnenkamm Downhill in Kitzbuehel, Austria, was the top American finisher, skiing faster than any racer in the field over the final 30 percent of the course to finish a very strong fifth.
There had been a weeklong buzz surrounding Miller. He won two of three training runs and was widely regarded as the favorite to win his first Olympic downhill gold and his sixth medal overall (no other U.S. alpine skier has more than three). U.S. ski journalists had spent much of Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning calculating the superlatives that Miller would take down with a victory (or even a medal) in the downhill and could potentially own with additional medals in the Super-G and combined events to come, and he is also skiing slalom (Yes, I was a big part of this process).
This was all happening a little quickly when you consider that while Miller is among the most gifted ski racers in history, he was also the second-oldest starter in the field (Swiss Didier Defago, the 2010 downhill gold medalist who finished 14th, is 10 days older), underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee less than two years ago and hadn’t won a race of any kind since December of 2011. Never mind the personal upheaval of a marriage (and his wife’s miscarriage last December), along with a public custody battle over his year-old son, his second child with two different women, neither of whom is his wife.
Still, this is Miller we’re talking about, and as of Sunday morning anything seemed possible on a pair of skis. And some of it still is.
But not in the Olympic downhill.
Racing with the No. 15 starting bib, Miller crushed the early sections of the run, as he had in a brilliant training run Saturday, which Jansrud called “epic.” After roughly 51 seconds of racing, Miller was .31 seconds ahead of Mayer’s leading time.
In the next section of the course Miller sliced across one of the course gates on a left-footed turn; the cloth panel stretched between two poles raked across Miller’s upper body and racing helmet. At the next split, he was ahead of Mayer by only .02 seconds, clearly losing time. At the fourth split, just 20 seconds before the finish, he was .49 behind. Dead meat.
It appeared that Miller had made one significant mistake in the middle of the course. His gate encounter was followed by a brief uphill, where a loss of speed is costly.
Ganong confirmed this assessment: “[Miller] had one mistake on this pretty critical turn that goes into a flat section. There’s a left-footer over a little bubble, into an uphill. [Miller] kind of pinched the turn off, he started to turn a little too early and he stuck his head through the panel. He lost a little speed there…And when you lose your speed there, it’s a losing battle to the finish.”
Miller, ever the contrarian, said this was not the case at all. “I really didn’t make a mistake,” he said. “I mean, I hit gates, but… hitting gates doesn’t really make any difference.”
Perhaps U.S. Ski Team men’s head coach Sasha Rearick could break the tie. Rearick was positioned on the mountain very close to where Miller hit the gate.
“He paneled the gate,” Rearick said. “He basically took the gate out. Sometimes it’s faster to panel the gate out of the way. In that situation, it’s not.”
Miller’s overall assessment of his race was subtler but also invites skepticism. There’s no doubt conditions were very different from the previous three days, when Miller dominated the official training runs. Those days were clear and colder; race day was mostly cloudy and several degrees warmer.
Cloudy skies create a condition racers call flat light, which makes it more challenging to see changes in the terrain. Warm, moist air causes the snow to break up more swiftly. “The training runs were bluebird, perfect visibility, hard snow,” Miller said. “Those are the perfect conditions to see who is the best skier.”
Of course, gold medals don’t go to the best skier, they go to the skier who is fastest on the day of the Olympic final. Back to Bode:
“When the visibility goes bad, it affects me quite a bit,” Miller said. “Guys who have a little bit different balance and initiation process in the turns, it just doesn’t seem to hurt them. Matthias is great that way. He doesn’t really change when the visibility goes bad. I had to change a lot from the training runs. I ski more on the edge than most guys.”
“The light was different,” said Svindal, visibly shrugging. “We’re used to that, so that’s okay.” (In fairness, Miller said as much later in his circular post mortem: “That’s the case a lot of time on the World Cup.” Back to Bode, one more time:
“When temperatures are warmer, the course breaks down a little bit,” Miller said. “Each racer that goes down breaks the course [up].”
Mayer, who pushed out four racers in front of Miller, said that sun came out right after his run and, indeed, began breaking up the snow. However, silver medalist Innerhofer started five places after Miller.
Throughout Miller’s career, he has straddled the line that separates honest assessment from excuse-making. He can be dazzlingly candid, but beyond a point his precision gets painful.
He competes in an outdoor sport that’s judged by a clock. And harshly. Svindal said: “I had pretty good speed, but I made too many small mistakes.” That seemed about right. He later tweeted: “I tried getting that gold and pushed hard. Too many mistakes and ended up 4th. Not that sweet in #Olympics.”
Rearick said of Miller, “The difference today with Bode was, he wanted it. He wanted it too much. We’ve always done better when we focus on process. Today we had gold-medal results get in our way.’’
He might be onto something. Miller had long resisted allowing himself to be defined by results, despite that rules of his chosen sport. He tried to take that path again Sunday.
“I’ve said a million times I’m not always so affected by the results,” Miller said. But then he added: “I would have loved to get a gold medal today, or any medal today…”
Of his moment in finish corral, Miller said he was simply replaying the run in his head before facing the media. “I was making sure I knew where I was at,” he said, “before I had to deal with everyone telling me what they thought.” Okay. But it sure looked at least a little like disappointment.
And later: “I skied okay today. I’m disappointed I didn’t get a medal. [But] I brought huge intensity and I skied aggressively and I was pushing the line.”
And even later than that: “I would have loved to win, obviously,” he said. “This is the premier event and it’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit. But when it’s out of your control, that takes the disappointment out quite a bit.”
He has three races left in Russia. Three races left in his Olympic career. He knows the fundamental truth: It is always out of your control. Sun shines, rain falls, skies become cloudy. Or another man skis faster. The rest is noise.