KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Slovenian ski racer Tina Maze has expectations. Four years ago in Vancouver she emerged from the ranks of the very good by winning two Olympic sliver medals and last year she laid down the most dominant season of any female racer in history, culminating with a runaway victory in the overall World Cup standings. (She also recorded a song and video that were popular in her home country and certified her status as a cultural celebrity; judge for yourself).
She had struggled to regain her racing form this season, with just one World Cup victory, but that did not diminish her sense of entitlement.
Late Monday afternoon in the first women’s alpine event of the Sochi Olympics, she was overtaken for the bronze medal in the slalom run of the combined competition by Julia Mancuso of the U.S.
When two U.S. reporters approached her in the media interview area, Maze glared daggers and did not respond. “I was really disappointed after that race,” Maze would say later. “Of course, I was counting on a medal position already in combined.”
Dominique Gisin of Switzerland has expectations, too. No more knee surgeries, to start with. She has had nine, including seven on her right knee. Perhaps no more sensational crashes, like the huge digger she took coming off the final hill of the Olympic downhill in Vancouver, when she bounced like a child’s crib toy across the hill and into a snow berm near an exit from the course. Or a similar crash in the downhill at the world championships last February in Austria.
“It’s the story of my career,” Gisin said, in recalling the Vancouver crash, but relating it more broadly to her nine-year career that has seen just three World Cup victories. “Up, down, forward, backward, every little bit to fight for.”
Entering Wednesday morning's Olympic downhill on another unseasonably warm day in the Caucasus Mountains, Americans thought perhaps Mancuso might win the race and add to her U.S female alpine record of four medals. She finished eighth.
Germans thought Maria Hoefl-Riesch might add to the gold she won in the combined. She finished 13th.
Swiss thought Lara Gut might finally win her first Olympic medal, and she did, a bronze.
But Maze and Gisin shared the day, literally and historically, finishing in the first gold-medal tie in alpine Olympic history. It was the fifth time alpine racers had shared a medal, but all of the previous ties had been for silver or bronze, the most recent in 1998 when Didier Cuche of Switzerland and Hans Knauss of Austria shared the silver medal in the Super-G event.
Maze and Gisin were each awarded gold medals, and Gut was given a bronze; there was no silver medal.
Gisin had come down the course wearing bib No. 8 and finished .37 seconds faster than Fabienne Suter of Switzerland, who had been the first racer out of the start house. Gisin remained alone in the lead -- Gut finished just .10 seconds behind as the 18th racer -- until Maze pushed at No. 21.
When Maze flashed across the line, she looked at the giant scoreboard in the finish, saw a “1” illuminated and threw her arms into the air while gliding uphill nearly to the finish line of the adjacent men’s course. Upon returning to the middle of the area, she fell to the ground and planted a kiss on the snow.
All the while, she was apparently unaware of the tie with Gisin. “I just saw the number one,” Maze said. “The rest is not important. It’s even more interesting now because it’s not the usual thing. It’s something special. It’s better to be two on the top [step of the medal stand], than [only] one by 1/100th of a second.”
Gisin concurred. “She is a great athlete, Tina. One of the greatest of all time.”
The two held hands in the snow while awaiting the flower ceremony that followed the race. “It was spontaneous,” Maze said. “Dominique and I are the same age. We [have been] pretty close for many years.”
While a tie to the hundredths of a second in a race that takes place over 1.69 downhill miles is very unusual, both Maze and Gisin tied for first place in their respective first World Cup wins. Maze finished in a three-way tie with Nicole Hosp of Austria and Andrine Flemmen of Norway in the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria on Oct. 26, 2002. Gisin tied with Anja Paerson of Sweden in a downhill race on Jan. 18, 2006, in Altenmarkt, Austria.
An official for FIS, the international ski federation, said the organization does not extend timing to 1/1000th of a second, or beyond, to break ties. Both speed skating and luge time their results to the 1/1000th of a second, and all Olympic events are administered by Swiss Timing. Giles Norton, marketing director for U.S.-based Lynx Systems, which makes photo finish equipment similar to that used by Swiss Timing, said, “All of us are capable of being accurate to one part in one million, but you have environmental factors involved, especially in a sport like skiing, where I wouldn't want to have to go beyond 1/100th of a second.”
A ski racer's time is started by pressing his shins against a plastic wand while leaving the start house and stopped by passing a beam of light at the finish. According to Roger Jennings, a U.S.-photo finish official for North Carolina-based FlashResults (and the judge at the center of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials 100-meter dead heat controversy of 2012), the accuracy of the final time is affected by the width of the beam at the finish, which calls into question the accuracy of separate racers timed beyond 1/100th of a second, even though the equipment offers readouts to further decimal places.
“In a sport like speed skating, you can be much more precise,” says Jennings. “You've got the end of a skate blade crossing a very narrow finish line at ice level. It's very easy to be accurate to 1/1000th of a second. We're able to measure tiny increments. In ski racing, you have a wider photoelectric beam that's broken by any part of the body, and then different skiers in different conditions. I don't think you can be accurate past 1/100th of a second.”
At the speeds of Wednesday’s downhill, a .10 seconds margin of victory amounts to 2.67 meters.
For Maze, her first Olympic gold comes during a season in which she has just four top-three podiums and didn’t win her first race until taking a downhill in Cortina on Jan. 25.
To help rescue her season, her coach-boyfriend, Andrea Massi, who is a member of the Slovenian coaching staff, hired Swiss coach Mauro Pini in late December. Pini, who previously had coached Spanish racer Maria Rienda Contreras and Gut, had been working as a broadcaster for Swiss TV ski broadcasts. “[The coaching] is not all technical,” Massi said. “To understand these top-level racers is to understand the mentalities.”
Gisin, meanwhile, is best remembered for her spectacular downhill crash in Vancouver, in the race in which U.S. star Lindsey Vonn won the gold medal and Mancuso the silver. She shrugged Wednesday and said, “I only had a concussion.” And in fact, she won a Super-G on the World Cup 18 days later.
Mancuso had been considered among the favorites in the downhill, based on winning the downhill portion of the combined two days earlier on the same hill. However, the snow turned slightly harder and faster Wednesday than the watery style Mancuso likes best.
She went bog off any early jump and dialed back. “I had a plan of attacking,” Mancuso said. “I was trying to attack, and then I caught all that air [on the first jump], and it made me back off a little. Instead of trying to go faster, I was kind of waiting, and it was my downfall.” (Picabo Street, who won a gold medal in the Super-G at the 1998 Olympics before skiing cautiously in the downhill that followed and who is in Sochi working for Fox Sports, said, “Mancuso is hungry, but it’s easy to get a medal and say, ‘I’ve got my medal, I’m not going to drop the hammer’”).
Mancuso has two races remaining, including the Super-G on Saturday.
Weather in the Caucasus Mountains continues to keep competitors guessing about their racing surface. And now there is this: They sometimes give out two gold medals at a time.