KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — For so much of his career, Bode Miller has preached that he divorces himself from his results. Don’t dare define him by his finishes, because he does not. In a sport judged solely by the clock, in which tenths of seconds determine medals or misery, he preferred the approach of figure skating judges, measuring the unmeasurables: inspiration and passion, risk taken and reward gained.
But when Miller careened to the bottom of the Olympic downhill course here Sunday morning and looked back at a scoreboard, he put his head in his hands, then squatted down in his ski boots, nearly sitting in the snow. The favorite when the day began, buoyed by three brilliant days of training, would not win a medal. And that result mattered to him.
“I would’ve loved to win, obviously,” Miller said. “This is the premier event. I’ve thought about it quite a bit.”
That information on that board, at that moment, showed Miller in sixth. By the end of the day, he would stand eighth — behind gold medalist Matthias Mayer of Austria by more than a half-second, off the medal stand by just .42 of a second, behind even upstart American teammate Travis Ganong, the solid fifth-place finisher, by .11.
And he would be left to assess the difference between his performance — and his result — from the three days of training, when he skied brilliantly under sunny skies, and how things played out under cloud cover Sunday.
“I was disappointed not to have a better result next to my name,” Miller said. “It’s one of those days where it’s hard to say where the time went, because I skied pretty well. I took a lot of risk and I made a couple small mistakes, but not really mistakes that cost you a lot of time. And it’s tough to just be missing it.”
Keys to the skis
Miller, 36, will thus have to wait for a chance to become the oldest Alpine Olympic medalist, wait for his chance to add to his total of five medals, wait for Friday’s super combined and the super-G two days later. He could medal in one or both. But even as he entered this past fall as a complete question mark, having skipped all of the previous season following knee surgery, he had re-established himself here on a toothy, treacherous downhill course very much to his liking. It rewarded racers for pushing themselves, and Miller relishes nothing more.
But as Ganong would later say, ski racing is nothing if not “fickle,” and it is difficult to parse what happens over 2.17 miles and 2 minutes 6.23 seconds — Mayer’s winning time, just six hundredths of a second ahead of Italy’s Christof Innerhofer, who took silver. By Miller’s telling, the cloud cover fundamentally altered his approach at the top of the course, where he held his greatest advantage in training. He could not, he said, ski as close to the edge as he would prefer because he could not see well enough.
“Not to make excuses, but when the visibility goes bad, it affects me quite a bit,” Miller said. “. . . Matthias is great that way. He doesn’t really change when the visibility goes bad, and that was a big advantage today, because I had to change a lot from the training runs to today just not being able to see the snow up there.”
Still, he led after each of the first two timing intervals. Given that other challengers — particularly Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, the silver medalist in the downhill four years ago, when Miller won bronze — likely would beat him at the bottom, Miller had to build an advantage early on.
“Everybody knew Bode could be the Olympic winner today,” said Mayer, the 23-year-old son of an Austrian Olympic medalist. “But I knew in the last two intermediate times, I can be very fast.”
Then, the murky part for Miller: Midway through the course, he ran into a gate. This is not necessarily catastrophic. Downhill racers exceed 80 mph, and such obstacles can be shrugged off. Indeed, about that development, Miller said: “I didn’t really make a mistake.”
Others saw it differently.
“He had one mistake on this pretty critical turn that goes into the flat section,” said Ganong, who skied seventh, eight spots ahead of Miller. The turn, carved with Miller’s left foot, goes into a slightly uphill section. When Miller cut the turn tight, Ganong said, and then hit the gate, he was in trouble.
“If you lose your speed there, it’s just a losing battle from there to the finish,” Ganong said. “. . . I think that’s kinda where he lost some speed.”
Mountains of the Olympics
Miller, instead, attributed his slowdown to soft snow in the course’s middle section, snow softened because of high humidity and warmer temperatures. Either way, the results were stark. Between the second and third timing interval, Miller lost a third of a second, costing him the lead. Over the next timing interval, he was 23rd-fastest. No racer among the top 12 finishers skied any section of the course slower. The race was lost.
“That’s racing,” said Svindal, who was less than three tenths of a second from gold, yet finished fourth. “No one ever goes and just grab their medals. You’ve got to put down a perfect run, and under these conditions, that’s actually really hard.”
Miller would agree. When he crossed the finish line and his result flashed on the scoreboard, the adjacent video screen briefly showed a picture of his wife, Morgan, who stared blankly ahead. How to process all this?
“I have a lot of races ahead of me,” Miller said. “And I know this could be a tough one to swallow today, having skied so well on the training runs, and then come in and be way out of the medals.”
His self-assessment, always his most important evaluation, was that he skied well. Now try to marry that with the fact that, this time, Bode Miller admitted that he cared about the result. It was an Olympian task.