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

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

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.

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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.

Super-G racers never once ski the course before bombing down it. All that they know about the course is what they glean from an inspection the morning of the race.

For experienced skiers like Vonn, that’s often enough. But sometimes, they can be fooled.

Vonn essentially lost the race in the bottom half of the course, where she eased off, thinking that she needed to be more conservative to stay on the course. Two racers that followed her, however, were more aggressive, and pushed her into bronze.

“Especially on super G, it's difficult,” she said after the race. “Having only one inspection and no training runs, it's difficult to always know how aggressive you can ski, and how the line is going to run, and what the speed is going to be.”

One of those racers who passed her, incidentally – gold medalist Andrea Fischbacher – had the course set specifically to her liking.

How did that happen?

Her coach was the one who set the course.

“He was making a perfect course for me,” said Fischbacher after the race.

There will be no inquiry or appeal from the Americans. It was all perfectly legal. The job of setting the course rotates among the coaches. This time, it just happened to help Vonn’s top competitor.

That’s skiing.

Shani Davis: the pairings

Of all the medals in play Saturday, however, the 1,500 meter long track speedskating gold was perhaps the most easy to predict. It was going to be won by an American.

Shani Davis is the world record holder in the distance. Moreover, he won four of the five World Cup 1,500-meter races this season – all by more than a second.

Yet Sunday, Dutchman Mark Tuitert beat Davis by an astounding 0.53 seconds – a complete reversal of every previous race this season.

After the race, Davis only congratulated Tuitert, whom he genuinely likes. “I don’t see it as losing. I put everything I had into it,” Davis said, before turning to Tuitert.

The 1,500 meters “is the king’s race,” Davis said, “and now I see him as the king.”

They shook hands in a spontaneous gesture of mutual respect.

But how could Davis, previously unbeatable, give his all and lose to someone who had not threatened him all season? Tuitert cited his training program, which was geared specifically toward preparing him for the Olympics.

But Derek Parra, a former gold-medalist in the 1,500 meters and now a US coach, said there was another factor, too. Tuitert had the better pairing.

When Tuitert skated, he was paired with Norwegian Håvard Bøkko, the best non-American in the field – and that gave him an opportunity to draft.

Drafting, as any NASCAR or Tour de France fan knows, is the ability to get behind a skater and into his slipstream, which pulls the trailing skater along with it, allowing him to skate fast without expending as much effort.

“It was the perfect pair,” Parra said. Because of the lane assignments, he said, Tuitert “got two drafts on the back side.”

Davis, by contrast, was paired with a Canadian who fell well off the pace early, meaning Davis had to skate the whole race without any help.

In the end, with Tuitert turning in an excellent run, it turned out to be too much of a disadvantage for Davis to overturn.

Neither Parra nor Davis was outwardly upset by this or made any insinuation that Tuitert had an unfair advantage. Quite the opposite. Both went out of their way to congratulate Tuitert for what was, by any measure, a well-deserved gold.

“He’s always been a great guy,” Parra said of Tuitert. “It’s good to see him get a reward.”

After all, pairings are just a part of speedskating.

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