PYEONGCHANG (Reuters) - The men’s downhill is one of the marquee events of the Winter Olympics but while it may crown the ‘fastest man on skis’ it also has a habit of throwing up surprise winners.
In the 70 years of competition, no man has successfully defended an Olympic downhill title and there have been several occasions when a racer with limited pedigree has grabbed gold.
On the other hand, some of the greatest downhill skiers of all-time, such as Switzerland’s Peter Muller and Franz Heinzer and Austrians Stephan Eberharter and Michael Walchhofer, never won an Olympic downhill gold.
Norwegian veteran Aksel Lund Svindal is hoping he will avoid being added to that list on Sunday.
Having won 14 World Cup downhill races, two World Cup season titles along with world championship titles in 2007 and 2013, he is among the all-time best.
But when it comes to the Olympics his best downhill result is silver in the Vancouver Games in 2010.
The Norwegian, who at 35 would become the oldest man to win a gold medal in any Alpine event, said one of the reasons why the race produced so many surprise Olympic winners was because of the depth of the competition.
And while the season-long World Cup rewards the most consistent performers, at an Olympics, anything can happen.
“The World Cup races too, they are always tight, but over the run of a whole season the best guys will won some, be second, fourth and so on,” he told Reuters.
“They gain enough points to be ahead in the world rankings. But in downhill Olympics anything can happen on any given day.
“It is the case that on any given World Cup race it is hard to predict the winner but then it doesn’t get talked about that much because there is a race next week or even the next day.
“But here there is only one every four years and it really gets a lot of focus. If there is a prize you remember it longer.”
Some to have won the ultimate prize at the Olympics are testament to Svindal’s observation.
France’s Jean-Luc Cretier won in Nagano in 1998 despite never having won a World Cup race and retired with his gold medal run his only downhill success.
American Tommy Moe, who won at Lillehammer in 1994, never won a World Cup race and his compatriot Bill Johnson, who beat Muller to gold in Sarajevo in 1984 had a brilliant few months in that year but faded as quickly as he had emerged.
Frenchman Antoine Deneriaz was a surprise winner in Turin in 2006 and never won a race again.
Austrian Matthias Meyer, who won four years ago in Sochi without having won a World Cup race in downhill said the small margins for error in the sport make surprises inevitable.
“It is always something special, special for all of us, it is so close and its about one hundredth, one tenth (of a second), that is why there are so many surprises,” he said.
The man Meyer pipped to the title in Sochi, Italian Christoph Innerhofer, however, does not expect any major upsets in South Korea.
“I think there won’t really be a big surprise this year,” he said.
“This slope is different from the last couple of Olympics, it will ski quick, racers can adapt to these conditions.”
Editing by Greg Stutchbury