WHISTLER, British Columbia — Didier Defago broke a two-decade Swiss drought with gold in the Olympic downhill Monday and American Bode Miller broke his personal streak of major championship failures by taking the bronze.
Defago sped down the Dave Murray course in 1 minute, 54.31 seconds to match countryman Pirmin Zurbriggen’s feat in the downhill at the 1988 Calgary Games — the last time a Swiss man had won an Olympic gold in any Alpine event.
Married with two young children whom he often brings along to races, Defago had never won a medal at an Olympics or world championship. His lone World Cup victory came in a super-G in Val Gardena, Italy, way back in 2002 before he won the two most prestigious downhills of the World Cup season on back-to-back weekends last year in Wengen, Switzerland, and Kitzbuehel, Austria.
“The conditions were perfect for me,” Defago said. “I knew I would do well, but I never expected to do this well. I had a great year with Wengen and Kitzbuehel. A medal had to come eventually for me.”
While teammate and pre-race favorite Didier Cuche was still to ski, Defago was already aware he had laid down a special run and nearly fell over backward into the padding lining the finish area as he celebrated with both arms in the air.
“He just nailed it right there. He didn’t have an easy year because of the other guys who were taking the glory all the time,” said Marco Buechel, the Liechtenstein skier who trains with the Swiss team. “Everybody on our team is really happy for him.”
Defending overall World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway took silver, a slim 0.07 seconds behind, and Miller was only 0.09 behind Defago.
“It was a huge relief to execute and ski well,” Miller said. “Obviously it would’ve been great to be a little faster. I was psyched. I skied hard.”
Having won two silvers at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Miller becomes the first American to win three medals in Alpine skiing at the Olympics. Phil Mahre, Tommy Moe, Picabo Street and Diann Roffe each won two medals.
Miller’s medal is also the first for the U.S. in the men’s downhill at the Olympics since Moe took a surprise gold at the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
At 32 years and 4 months, Defago became the oldest man to win the Olympic downhill, three months older than Frenchman Jean-Luc Cretier when he won at the 1998 Nagano Games.
Mario Scheiber of Austria finished fourth, local favorite Erik Guay of Canada placed fifth and Cuche was sixth.
Cuche, who leads the World Cup downhill standings and was skiing with a broken right thumb, was only 0.06 behind Defago through the final checkpoint, with the crowd turning silent at how tight it was, but Cuche inexplicably lost three-tenths through the final turns.
“It was really close and I can’t really understand why I was slow on the finish part,” Cuche said. “Normally, I’m a good finisher. But when I saw the crowd really quiet down here, I knew that was not like I wanted. I’m going to enjoy the night with Didier. He deserved it and it’s good for the Swiss nation.”
In addition to his performance in Salt Lake City in 2002, Miller won a full load of world championship medals before he went bust in Turin four years ago, making more headlines for his late-night partying than his skiing.
Miller also failed to win a medal at the 2007 and 2009 world championships and considered retiring over the summer before the Olympics lured him back for a shot at redeeming himself.
Miller was the eighth starter and set the pace for the other race favorites, who started between 16th and 22nd. He said the course was darker when he skied than for the other favorites later on.
“That’s what ski racing is about,” he said. “It’s always a mix. There definitely was light changing in the very beginning. It got progressively better, but definitely when I went the middle part was dark. That’s where Aksel pulled eight-tenths back on me. That’s the way ski racing goes. But I was happy with the way I skied.”
Miller started his run a little earlier than planned because the previous skier, Andrej Sporn of Slovenia, missed a gate early on.
Rocking back and forth as a team member psyched him up with screams and yells in the starting house, Miller began his run solidly, tucking at every opportunity on the upper gliding sections.
Miller was nearly a full second — 0.97 — faster than the previous leader, David Poisson of France, at the second checkpoint.
Always one of the most exciting skiers to watch, Miller flailed his arms out to maintain his balance on the turns and jumps, drawing “oohs” and “ahs” from the crowd, and pulled himself back into his aerodynamic tuck for the straightaways.
Perhaps still not 100 percent physically after skipping summer training while he debated his future, Miller lost nearly half a second on the bottom of the course, and appeared on the verge of exhaustion as he had a bit of a tough time landing the final jump leading into the finish line.
In the finish area, Miller’s mouth curled up into a smile as he pumped his head on his fists in satisfaction or — perhaps more likely — frustration, since he probably already knew it wouldn’t be enough for victory.
Starting 16th, Svindal trailed Miller through each checkpoint and landed the final jump just inside the blue line painted on the snow to outline the course. Somehow, the big Norwegian managed to shift his weight back onto the race line and crossed two-hundredths ahead of Miller.
Defago was the 18th man on course and was significantly faster than Svindal and Miller on the top. Then he fell behind before posting one of the fastest speeds — 117.2 kph (72.83 mph) — on the bottom and maintaining a slim advantage through coaches’ corner, a sweeping 180-degree right turn before the finish that is the run’s most challenging section.
While Guay performed admirably, two other Canadians with high hopes struggled.
Manuel Osborne-Paradis was even with Svindal before he got a little wild halfway down and lost a big chunk of time. Robbie Dixon — who has a house in Whistler — fell on the bottom.
U.S. downhill captain Marco Sullivan of Squaw Valley, Calif., also fell after losing his balance in midair through a jump on the bottom section. He placed his right ski nearly perpendicular to the snow and then sat back as he landed and slid through a gate.
The other American finishers were Steven Nyman of Sundance, Utah, in 20th and Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid, N.Y., in 21st.
Weibrecht was the fourth starter and radioed up a course report for Miller.
“It’s dark and it’s bumpy, but otherwise there’s no issues,” Weibrecht said. “We can go straight at this thing. The only thing you’ve got to be aware of is that the speeds are up everywhere.”
The race was originally scheduled for Saturday but was postponed for 48 hours due to the mix of warm temperatures, heavy snowfall, rain and fog that have wreaked havoc with the Alpine schedule at the Vancouver Games.
Conditions were still overcast Monday but the temperature fell below freezing overnight, making the course hard enough for skiers to dig their edges in and maintain control.
Flat and dim light created some visibility problems, although there was none of the mid-mountain fog that has plagued the Alpine venue the past several days.
The men race again in the super-combined Tuesday, with Miller among the favorites for another medal.