By Chris Dufresne Los Angeles Times
SOCHI, Russia — If only, for apple pie and America’s sake, the Olympic downhill had been raced Thursday or Saturday instead of Sunday.
If only clouds had not appeared over Rosa Khutor and created the flat light that so disturbed Bode Miller.
If only the temperature had not risen above freezing to create the humidity that softened conditions in the ice-hard middle section that Miller had crushed during training.
If only the start of Sunday’s race had not been delayed 15 minutes because of a “gondola” problem that left fans stranded at the bottom of the hill.
Did you ever think a 15-minute hold might rob Miller, and Team USA, of the most prestigious medal in Alpine skiing?
Little did we know until Sunday how much a ski course is like a petri dish and how easily a race course’s ecosystem can be compromised.
You could easily argue Miller would have won an Olympic downhill raced on Thursday, Friday or Saturday, but he definitely did not win it on Sunday.
The course and conditions that suited him so perfectly for three days turned on him with a vengeance and handed the gold medal to young Austrian Matthias Mayer.
“The training runs were bluebird, perfect visibility and hard snow,” Miller said. “That’s the perfect conditions to see who’s the best racer, unfortunately.”
You would expect this winning result from Austria if not for the fact it was the 23-year-old Mayer’s first career win and the country’s first downhill gold since Fritz Strobl’s in 2002.
Mayer restored some order to the kings of Alpine by sliding out of the No. 11 starting slot and seizing the lead with a time of 2 minutes 6.23 seconds. Four years ago, Austria’s men were winless.
Mayer’s time held up through the rest of a challenging lineup that included Miller (bib No. 15), Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal (18) and the defending Olympic champion, Switzerland’s Didier Defago (27).
Mayer almost got clipped by Italy’s Christof Innerhofer, in the 20th starting spot.
Innerhofer got to within six hundredths of a second of Mayer’s time but cheerfully settled for silver in 2:06.29, Italy’s first downhill medal since Herbert Plank won bronze in 1976.
One Norwegian, Kjetil Jansrud, beat another, Svindal, for the bronze.
Miller finished in eighth place, a full half-second behind Mayer’s winning time.
Miller’s performance was even eclipsed by U.S. teammate Travis Ganong, who skied stunningly well to finish fifth.
Ganong, racing seventh, took the lead with a time of 2:06.64 and was clinging to bronze until Svindal knocked him out 11 racers later.
Ganong, 25, was as thrilled as Miller, 36, was mystified.
“I didn’t know how good the time would be, but looking back I’m fired up, it’s awesome,” Ganong said.
Ganong had raced into Sochi with momentum after finishing seventh in the Kitzbuehel downhill in Austria and sixth in the super-G there.
Competing in his first Olympics — this is Miller’s fifth — Ganong said he used the adrenaline from walking through the opening ceremony to propel him to his finish.
“It’s the Olympics, it’s magical really,” Ganong said. “That energy fed me. I’m really glad I went to opening ceremonies because it just inspired me to step up my game and send it.”
While Ganong celebrated in the corral, Miller spent several minutes staring at the mountain that betrayed him.
He said he went through the race in his head several times before having to face the media.
“I like to make sure that I know what my judgment of myself was on a given day before I get to submitting myself to everyone else’s criticism, judgment and opinions,” Miller said.
No one denied snow conditions changed the dynamics of the race.
Miller said the lack of visibility bothered him more than it did Mayer and the others.
Miller won two of the downhill training runs and Mayer won the other.
Mayer also said the middle section Miller dominated in training was compromised by softer snow.
“Everybody knew Bode could be the winner today,” Mayer said.
Ganong, who watched Miller’s race from below, said he thought Miller made a mistake on his angle at the turn called Bear’s Brow.
“He kind of pinched the turn off, started the turn a little too early, and stuck his head through the panel (gate), and kind of lost some speed there,” Ganong said.
Miller said he bobbled in the top section but did not think any particular mistake cost him significant time.
He actually had the best time through the first two intervals but gave back too much time at the bottom.
“The course just slowed down,” Miller said “It’s one of the big challenges in ski racing. Sometimes it’s not in your hands.”
Miller has four more races to win his sixth Olympic medal.
The downhill, though, was the one all ski racers wanted to bag.
It was the reason Miller stood so long in the finish area, starting at the mountain that changed overnight.
And that changed everything.