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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.

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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.

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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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