Why the best skiers in the world don’t always win at the Olympics

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YANQING, China — At this point, Mikaela Shiffrin has gotten used to a certain rhythm in her life. Every four years, the world appears on her doorstep and asks how many medals she will win at the Olympics.

After all, she is, in many ways, the best skier in the world.

Yet, for several years now, Shiffrin has been trying to explain that alpine skiing, with its microscopic margins of error and its long list of uncertainties, is not so predictable. A change as subtle as a gust of wind, or the movement of a cloud that allows sunlight to soften the snow in the middle of a race, can be the difference between a gold medal and an 11th. square.

Monday, the lesson was obvious: she slipped during her first run in the giant slalom and is not in contention for a medal in this event.

It proved once again what even the best skiers in the world know, that years of preparation and training can mean little at the Olympics if conditions and circumstances don’t cooperate. It’s a reality that this year has made Shiffrin try not to think too much about what she’s about to face on a mountain that she and almost everyone will be running on for the first time.

“When the wind is like that, we’re just going to have to know that you can do everything right and have a gust of wind, and that’s it,” Shiffrin said of the competition taking place on the windy, unfamiliar terrain. from Yanqing National Alpine Ski Center.

Depending on her results, her energy level and her schedule, she could participate in all five individual races at these Games, starting with the giant slalom on Monday. The idea that she might not win any of them, through no fault of her own but due to bad luck, she admits, is “a little disappointing”.

This is one of the great frustrations of alpine skiing. Nothing solidifies an athlete’s status as one of the greatest like an Olympic medal. But these medals can be won or lost in as little as two minutes.

“The winner of the globe is the best skier of the whole season,” Austrian Vincent Kriechmayr said on Friday, referring to the glass trophy awarded to the World Cup champion each year. “But being an Olympic champion is one of the most important goals you can achieve in your career.”

As the wind blew over the finish area in Yanqing last week, Kriechmayr spoke dejectedly, which made sense. He has a crystal globe and four world championship medals, two of them gold, but he has yet to win an Olympic medal.

“It’s essential to a legacy,” said Lindsey Vonn, the retired champion. She won the downhill at the Vancouver Games in 2010, a triumph she described as the transformational event of her life in her autobiography, “Rise.”

“I had in mind to go to Vancouver,” Vonn said. “To be really big, I had to win the Olympics.”

As Shiffrin heads to the start hut on Monday to defend his giant slalom gold medal, the argument for pure chance in Olympic alpine competition has probably never been stronger. There is the usual array of uncontrollable factors that nature can throw at any ski race, including bright sunshine and hot temperatures that can soften the snow and slow the course with every passing minute.

At Yanqing, an exposed, windy and rocky peak, skiers have been saying for days that the wind could be the main differentiator between the podium and the races, which means that a life-changing medal could be determined by the chance of the bib draw. who assigns the starting places. “Half a second difference,” Travis Ganong of the United States said after his practice run on Friday.

There is also the cruel truth of the sport, in which one rarely has time to recover from a slight slip or a momentary snagging of a ski edge. Shiffrin won her fifth Crystal Globe in slalom in 2018, but she finished fourth in the Olympic slalom competition at the Pyeongchang Games that year due to a restless night’s sleep before the race.

And then there is the novelty of the tracks in Yanqing. Olympic competitions are often held on mountains that are not part of the World Cup circuit, but every Yanqing skier is racing the courses for the first time as the coronavirus pandemic has prevented traditional test events from taking place. the year before the Games.

“We know it’s steep and all the snow is artificial and maybe it’s going to be cold,” Paula Moltzan, a Shiffrin teammate, said as she prepared to head to China from the start. ‘Europe. “But each microclimate has its own type of snow.”

Yanqing’s dry cold so far has kept the snow crisp, light and hard, but forecasts call for warmer temperatures throughout the week and unpredictable winds.

Shiffrin has been thinking for a while now that her ability to learn a new track quickly can be to her advantage: she’s primarily a specialist in slalom and giant slalom, disciplines that typically don’t have pre-race training with open doors. the lesson. This often forces riders to arrive in the morning, examine the track and gates, and get down to it. In contrast, speed specialists generally excel at getting to know the same hills year after year and learning the best paths through the turns and barrel rolls of different tracks.

This does not, however, lessen the pressure of the Olympic races. Before the first Shiffrin Games in 2014, she said, she didn’t understand the gravity of what winning an Olympic medal could mean. Then she won and got a good taste of it, and it was on her mind – maybe a little too much – to go to Pyeongchang in 2018.

“Control what you can control,” Shiffrin said. “Just try not to be too disappointed with the rest.”

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