Olympic favourites fail to sparkle

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The favourites have it all to do in the second week of the Winter Olympics after the first half of the games saw surprising winners and a host of failures from the fancied athletes, particularly in the Alpine skiing.

Among those who have failed to shine in spite of the hype are Bode Miller of the US, who came fifth in the men’s downhill and was disqualified in the combined event for straddling a slalom pole.

Fritz Strobl, Hermann Maier and other favourites bombed in the downhill, too. Although the women’s race was won by one of the favourites, Michaela Dorfmeister, many of her competitors finished nowhere, some after horrendous crashes in training.

Lindsey Kildow of the US still came an astonishing eighth after spending some of the week in hospital and telling those at her bedside that she felt “like someone had smashed a barstool across my back”.

Michael Walchhofer of Austria, another downhill favourite, at least managed a silver while being beaten by Antoine Denariaz, an unfancied Frenchman languishing well below him in the world standings.

The Winter Olympics seems to make a habit of being unkind to favourites. You would have to be a real fan to remember Leonhard Stock’s victory in the men’s downhill at Lake Placid in 1980.

That was Stock’s first win and he did not win again for almost nine years. By the time he retired he had won only four races.

More recently, the American Tommy Moe won his first downhill with Olympic gold in 1994 and did not win again. The same goes for Jean-Luc Cretier of France, the winner in 1998.

It makes one wonder if the concept of a favourite has any meaning in a sport in which the weather is so variable and can alter the snow and visibility in minutes. The chances of a medal can be taken away just by the starting position. A few tenths of a second can mean the difference between first and 20th.

Picabo Street, a US Olympic gold medallist at the women’s super giant slalom in 1998, says: “I think there are fewer elements to adjust to in the other disciplines. I’ve just skied the course and the conditions are tremendously difficult. The snow is part man-made and part natural. Your skis turn more quickly than you would expect.”

Street’s gold was itself a surprise as super giant was not her best event. She won silver in the downhill, her favoured discipline, in 1994. She says the changeable weather made life difficult in Turin, too, as it was murky at racetime. The girls spent three days training in sunny, blue-sky conditions and then the race was run in flat light.

Alpine skiing is not alone among sports where the concept of a favourite does not mean much. But in regular World Cup ski races, athletes often dominate seasons. Italy’s Giorgio Rocca won five slalom events in a row to January this year.

Perhaps skiing is an example of the Olympics defeating some athletes’ nerve. Walchhofer, talking about the pressure on him and Strobl, says: “I’m not surprised [about eighth position in the downhill] because I had a lot of pressure.”

“Pressure is your biggest monkey wrench,” says Street. “You see how everyone reacts when they win, you wonder how you will be. How will your parents be? And meanwhile, where are your parents? Are they OK in the hotel? You can completely spin yourself out if you want.”

Street agrees that it was not a good week for favourites but says they are created by the media. One of the things the athletes say is that everyone has a chance.

Still, she admits to being pleasantly surprised by the colour of some of the medals, in particular Ted Ligety’s gold in the men’s combined. “Sometimes people need a big event to bring out their best while others are more calm and subtle,” she says. “Very rarely can they do both.”

In the second week, some of the eye-catching events are the women’s figure skating, the slalom races and the finals of some of the short-track skating which has been drawing crowds.

Michelle Kwan, the most decorated figure skater in US history, withdrew injured having flown over to Turin and been unhappy in practice. So it is probable that her career will end without Olympic gold.

The host nation’s biggest hopes still rest on Rocca, who has dropped out of the giant slalom and super giant slalom to concentrate on his main event next Saturday. Rocca was not happy with his performance in the combined, where he came third in the slalom part.

Street, too, has been captivated by the controlled anarchy of short-track skating, particularly the relays where 16 skaters hare about the same small rink used for figure skating.

The men’s 5,000m semi-finals ended with a disqualification of Japan for colliding with the Italian team, so Italy managed to advance to the final on top of the four regular qualifiers. It means there will be five teams, 20 skaters and almost certain chaos. “It’s already confusing enough without adding four more guys,” says Street.

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