by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

VAL d’ISERE, France — Being the first skier on the Olympic downhill is like being the first float in a parade: People wave, but they’re looking over your shoulder. They’re waiting for the good stuff that comes next.

And so for an hour on the mountain Sunday, we all waited for the good stuff. We waited as a grizzled former Olympic champion, Leonhard Stock, had a great run going until he bashed into a gate and saw his pole go flying, like a drummer who loses his sticks. We waited as the Luxembourg Lightning, Marc Girardelli, who was probably en route to a gold medal, whizzed right past a gate and dropped to his knees in disgust. We waited as the well-known Swiss hero, Paul Accola — all right, so you never heard of him; you don’t live in Switzerland, do you? — blitzed out of the gate and might have won this baby, had he not spilled into the snow in a killer turn.

We waited, we waited.

And pretty soon — I think it was when the guy from Senegal tried to snowplow his way down — we realized that the weirdest thing had happened: After four years of breathy anticipation for the most dangerous gravy run in sports, La Descente, the Downhill, one trip down the mountain for all the marbles, gung ho, glory or death, no heats, no trials, no judges, fastest one to the bottom wins and it’s see the rest of you suckers next Olympics — after all that, this was the result:

The first man down won the whole thing.

The rest of them could have stayed on the chair lift.

“What were you thinking when you watched every other skier reach the bottom and still not beat you?” someone asked Austria’s Patrick Ortlieb, a 24-year-old blond behemoth, who had never won a major race in his life, yet Sunday posted the best time of the Olympics before you could say, “Go!”

“Well,” he answered, “naturally the waiting was full of tension and suspense. But after Accola fell down, I knew I had won it.”


That’s it?

Wait a minute. Make him go again. That’s not supposed to be the Downhill; the best goes first and the rest are just for show. This ain’t the Kentucky Derby, you know. This is La Descente Olympique, the race that spins men out of macho, two minutes of leaden Olympic pressure that sees guys such as Franz Klammer, faced with an impossible mountain, hang his tail out on the line and dance with death at every other turn, just to reach the happy cries of his countrymen. Or Bill Johnson, an All-American show-off, stick his tongue out and drop into a speed tuck and pin “See you later” on his speed-suited butt. Some of the greatest Olympic moments have come on the snowpacked face of a snarling mountain, man against gravity, skis against snow. Sunday should have been that kind of day.

Instead it was over before it had started. For that, you can credit Ortlieb, who skied marvelously, but you can also blame the race designers. The course — most of which you could see from the bottom, a rarity in downhill — was not built for speed, but rather for turns and for danger. “Somebody could kill himself today,” analyst Bob Beattie, the former U.S. coach, warned a few minutes before the race.

Nobody killed himself. Instead, the speed demons in the race felt like caged fighter pilots, unable to go full throttle because of all these damn objects they had to fly around. “Too many turns,” they grumbled.

Now, to be fair, downhillers, like car drivers, are never happy. If you make the course a speed burn, the finesse racers say it’s a showdown among ski waxes. And if you make the course twist with hairpin curves that mean you slow

down or you lose your left side — then the speed merchants moan you’re taking all the fun out of the event.

Still, even Ortlieb, who won the damn thing, was not gracious to the mountain he had conquered. “I hope I never have to ski this course again,” he said.

He did not, however, complain about his starting position.

And that might be the other reason this was The Downhill That Wasn’t. Whatever good fortune caused the judge to pull Ortlieb’s name first from the starter’s hat might indeed be the difference between all the money this kid is about to make, and, let’s say, fifth place. Being the first skier off the mountain is usually bad luck. But on a sunny afternoon, on a technical course, when your nerves are edgy, it can be an advantage.

“I like going first very much,” Ortlieb admitted, smiling with the medal around his neck. “I can ski with no pressure. When you watch other skiers go before you, you see their time and you think, ‘Could I have gone faster?’ Maybe you change your line just a little bit, because you want to beat his time. . . .”

Instead, unfettered and target-free, Ortlieb came flying down La Face de Bellevarde like a teenager in a happy hurry to see his girlfriend. He nearly leaped into the treacherous ridge that opens this course, and he skated through hairpin turns and brushed past out-of-bounds fences as if skipping up and down a street curb. At each sharp change of direction, he shifted his weight and cut the edges of his skis, earning the spectators’ screams of
“Yalalalalala!” and a ringing of bells that whisked through his helmet and melted behind him.

Jumps. Turns. Finally, the speed tuck. The finish line.

He crossed in 1:50.37. Polite applause.

And then everyone looked past him. Next guy, please. But one after another, they fell short or just fell. Girardelli, a former World Cup champion, hit the orange fence; Accola, the top-ranked World Cup skier, never got past Tower Turn 2. AJ Kitt, America’s biggest hope, finished ninth. France’s Franck Piccard really had the run of the day, skiing No. 23 yet coming within .05 of the leader, literally losing by a nose, winding up with a silver medal.

But shortly after Piccard, there was no point in putting anyone else’s name on the board. Ortlieb was built for this course — his heavy weight and big body made the hard turns more negotiable. And his was the time to beat, from the first run to the last. He finally raised his arms in victory — and the 1992 glory chase was over on the mountain.

“Being No. 1 is good,” he said, referring to his bib and his status. “I think No. 1 is now my favorite number.”

And he smiled again, the Olympic King, who, true to his country, offered a new tradition in the glorious downhill history: He saved the best for first.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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