KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The course for the women’s downhill race at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center is serpentine and slippery, officially 1.69 miles long, cascading through the woods of the Caucasus Mountains. Different skiers with different styles approached it differently Wednesday, when 41 women contested the Olympic downhill. The fastest way to the finish is open for interpretation.
After she raced through the bright sunshine, Switzerland’s Dominique Gisin was fastest, covering that distance in 1 minute 41.57 seconds. Thirteen skiers later came Slovenia’s Tina Maze, perhaps the last, best threat. Gisin stared not at the skier but at the scoreboard, where a clock ticked to the hundredth of a second, where her advantage or disadvantage — and essentially, the color of her medal — would be revealed.
“I just looked away,” Gisin said. “And I looked up again, and I saw 0.00.”
It may have taken a moment to register because the brain does not wrap easily around such improbabilities — particularly on a stage as grand as the Winter Olympics. But when Maze crossed the finish line, the clock stopped at 1:41.57. The number at which Gisin stared — the 0.00 — was the difference between her and Maze.
That is to say: None at all, a flat-footed tie.
“Crazy day,” Gisin said.
Never before, in an Olympic Alpine skiing event, had two racers tied for gold, an unlikely development that left both ecstatic. Kissing your sister? Maze instead bent over and kissed the snow. Gisin couldn’t contain tears.
Mountains of the Olympics
Seven times previously two gold medals had been awarded for the same Winter Games event, though one wasn’t technically a tie (and we’ll get to that). Four times, Olympic ski racers had tied for medals, the last in 1998, when Switzerland’s Didier Cuche and Austria’s Hans Klauss tied for silver in super-G, both in 1:35.43.
Skiers live in a world defined by hundredths of a second, in which Switzerland’s Lara Gut finished a tenth of a second slower than Maze and Gisin — and felt, comparably, like a distant third for bronze. Near the finish line, American champion Picabo Street wondered whether anyone had the event timed to the thousandth of a second.
“I’m so curious to know,” Street said. “I want to get that person and just like beat it out of ’em.”
Street has some credibility in this area. In 1998, she won gold in the super-G in Nagano — by one hundredth of a second.
“It’s hundredths that count,” Maze said. “Maybe just one finger, maybe just a hand, could change the color of a medal.”
In this case, one hundredth of a second equaled 101 / 2 inches. Yet Maze and Gisin weren’t even separated by that much, if at all. Olympic skiing was first timed to the hundredth of a second at the 1964 Innsbruck Games. Unlike in track, in which an official must determine when an athlete’s torso crosses the finish line, ski timing is relatively simple. As soon as the tip of a ski crosses the finish, an electronic timer records it and stops the clock.
Thus, such ties for first in Alpine skiing are rare. Three of the previous ties for gold at the Winter Games came in speedskating, once at 500 meters and twice at 1,500 meters, all on pristine sheets of ice — as opposed to the 2,713 meters and the varied terrain of the women’s downhill course here. The tie for gold in a 1972 doubles luge race came over a 763-meter track; the tie for gold in a two-man bobsled race in 1998 came over a track of 1,360 meters. And another tie for gold came in a cross-country ski race in 2002, one timed to the tenth of a second.
Unlikely results, all of them. But perhaps not as unlikely as Wednesday’s.
“You see ties in speedskating, where they’re going the exact same distance,” said American Stacey Cook, who was within a second-and-a-half of Maze and Gisin — but finished 17th. “But our sport . . . that there could be such little separation like that is pretty amazing considering how different the lines are that those two took. So much of it is that last little competitive edge that pushes you to those tight intervals.”
(The even stranger outlier: In 2002, two Russians topped two Canadians in pairs figure skating — at least for a day. A French judge eventually admitted she had been pressured to place the Russians first. When the controversy was sorted out, Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier were awarded a second gold. )
Keys to the skis
Oddly enough, Gisin and Maze were familiar with such a feeling, if not at the Olympics. When Gisin won her first race on the international World Cup circuit in 2009, she tied with the great Swede Anja Paerson. When Maze won her first World Cup race, a slalom contested over two runs back in 2002, she tied with two other women for first place.
“Sometimes,” Maze said, “it can be closer.”
Maybe. But never before at the Olympics. When Maze’s run began, Gisin already had fended off some of the race’s most significant challengers: American Julia Mancuso, a medal winner already here; German champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch, who took gold in the super combined Monday; and Gut, the 22-year-old in her first Olympics. At each timing interval, Maze built a lead by the tiniest of margins — two hundredths of a second, then nine, then 13, then 38.
Gisin could only watch, covering her mouth with her hands.
“I don’t think you can race for hundredths; hundredths is always luck,” Gisin said. “But luck comes back once in your life. One time you’re on one side. One time, you’re on the other. And maybe one time you’re in the middle, like today. I am for sure happy where I am.”
Afterward, as the three women stood for the flower ceremony at the base of the hill, Gut heard her name called and stepped to the lowest level of the podium, reserved for bronze. And standing right in the middle, Maze clutched Gisin’s left hand with her right. Together, they rose to the highest step. Four arms reached to the sky in triumph and in unison because hundredths of a second over miles of terrain could not separate them, even at the Olympics, with gold at stake.