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Why gold slipped away from Lindsey Vonn and Shani Davis

Americans Lindsey Vonn and Shani Davis – and even Apolo Ohno – were favorites for gold Saturday. Their opponents put in fantastic performances, but there were other factors, too.

By Staff writer / February 21, 2010

American Shani Davis finishes the final turn of the 1500 meters at the Richmond Olympic Oval Saturday. He won silver, 0.53 seconds behind Dutchman Mark Tuitert.

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Vancouver, British Columbia

The lesson of the Winter Olympics, Day 9: There are no such things as gold-medal favorites.

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Saturday dawned with Americans virtually certain of two things: Lindsey Vonn would win gold in the super-G and an American speedskater would win gold in the 1,500 meters.

And maybe, just maybe, Apolo Anton Ohno would win his race, too.

Three days after the US won three golds in one day, it was ready to repeat the feat.

Only one thing got in the way: the Winter Olympics.

Unlike its summer cousin, the volatile Winter Olympics do not look too kindly on predictions. The Summer Games, after all, are rather predictable.

No competitor in the 100 meter freestyle is suddenly going to swim into another lane, cutting off a competitor right as he’s accelerating for the pass. No one is going to change the course of the 400 meter hurdles overnight, adding a blind bank turn through the long-jump pit. And no one is going to give a high jumper a boost.

Yet, in a way, all those things befell American gold-medal favorites Sunday, turning potential gold into silver and bronze.

To many Americans, skill and determination are the only factors that decide who wins a race – everything else sounds like an excuse. But in the Winter Olympics many variables go into deciding who wins, and those variables are completely out of an athlete’s control.

Most seasoned winter-sports athletes rarely cite them, but that is not because they don’t exist. Rather, it’s because they are so ingrained into the DNA of the sport that athletes have long ago accepted them as inscrutable and inevitable.

Apolo Ohno: the slip

Ohno, for example, is not engaging in spin when he says that his Olympics have been a success, regardless of his results, because “I came to these Games having left no stone unturned in my preparations.”

What he knows is that, even if he is the best short-track speedskater in the world, he might not win a single medal.

Take Saturday night.

In the men’s 1,000 meters, Ohno was in his favorite position: lurking behind tiring leaders, ready to make his move. With two laps to go, he knew it was time. Trying to jump ahead of the Koreans – who were also making their move – he got tangled up with François Hamelin of Canada.

"If I wouldn't have done that slip, I could have won the race," he growled after the race.

No one was disqualified – there was nothing illegal in the contact – it is just what happens in short track, with five bodies seeking the same line in a jailbreak scramble to the finish. On this night, that perfect line spit out Ohno, who stumbled to the back of the pack.

In those two remaining laps, though, Ohno made up ground as though he had afterburners. By the finish, he had somehow managed to claw back the two Canadians. “I did something in that race that I didn’t think was even possible,” he said.

The reward: bronze.

And he was overjoyed with it – especially since it made him the most decorated Winter Olympian in American history with seven medals, surpassing Bonnie Blair's six.

"The way you guys say that, it sounds very, very nice," he smiled.

Lindsey Vonn: the course

Inwardly, America certainly chuckled after the women’s downhill. Vonn said she had achieved her goal: one gold medal. How modest.

How was she not going to win the super-G? Of the five super-Gs held on the World Cup this season, she had won the last three and never finished lower than third. Her performances had been so dominating that, with two races remaining, she had already won the World Cup super-G title.

But skiing is a curious thing.

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