PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA - Austria’s Matthias Mayer will attempt to go where no man has gone before on Sunday when he defends his Olympic downhill title in what looks likely to be an open race against a pack of challengers hungry for his crown.
No one has won successive titles in the blue riband event of the Olympic Alpine skiing program and whether Mayer gets the chance to achieve the feat remains at the mercy of the weather at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre.
Training has been affected by high winds, which not only raises the risk that Sunday’s final may be delayed until later in the week but also increases the possibility that a dark horse could ride a tail-wind to victory.
“You can definitely say that it will be a tight race. Who will be up on the podium — that will be decided by a hundredth of a second,” Mayer predicted. “The fastest guys are all here and the best will win tomorrow.”
Christof Innerhofer of Italy and Kjetil Jansrud of Norway, the silver and bronze medalists in Sochi four years ago, are very much in the hunt this time.
Innerhofer was fastest in the second day of training, while Jansrud was the most consistent over all three practice runs, placing second each time as he looked to find the right line to become Norway’s first Olympic downhill champion.
Canada’s Manuel Osborne-Paradis was quickest on day one, while Vincent Kriechmayr of Austria set the pace on day three.
Jansrud’s teammate Aksel Lund Svindal, age 35, stands second in the World Cup downhill rankings this season and is looking to go one better than the silver medal he won in the downhill at Vancouver eight years ago.
Others to watch include Beat Feuz of Switzerland and Italy’s Dominik Paris, respectively first and third in the World Cup, and young German Thomas Dressen, who scored a surprise win on the spectacular Kitzbuehel run in Austria last month.
“It will ski quick, racers can adapt to these conditions and for me the best guy for this is Kjetil Jansrud,” Innherhofer told reporters.
“I saw Mayer in really good shape and Osborne-Paradis can ski really smooth, for sure these will be the guys to beat.”
The Jeongseon course, designed by former Olympic champion Bernhard Russi, is 2,852 meters long, with a vertical drop of 825 meters, and is relatively easy compared with some others on the circuit.
That could mean that victory is decided by the fewest mistakes, the sleekest aerodynamics and the most precise line down the mountain, rather than out-and-out risk-taking.
“I think the mistakes will come from pushing too hard, because when it becomes difficult to win, guys try to take too much risk to try to gain that little bit extra,” said Bode Miller, the most-decorated American Olympic skier, who is working as a broadcaster during the Pyeongchang Games.