Why the world’s best skiers don’t always win at the Olympics
By Matthew Futterman
At this point, Mikaela Shiffrin has gotten used to a certain rhythm to her life. Every four years, the world appears on her doorstep and asks how many medals she is going to win at the Olympics.
After all, she is, by many accounts, the best skier in the world.
Yet for several years now, Shiffrin has been trying to explain that Alpine skiing, with its microscopic margins for error and its laundry list of uncertainties, is not that predictable. A shift 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 make the difference between a gold medal and 11th place.
On Monday, the lesson was evident: She slid off course during her first run in the giant slalom and is out of contention for a medal in that event.
It proved again what even the world’s best skiers know: Years of preparation and training can mean little at the Olympics if conditions and circumstances do not cooperate. It is a reality that this year has driven Shiffrin to try not to overthink what she is about to confront on a mountain she and almost everyone else will be racing on for the first time.
“When the wind is like this, we’re just going to have to know that you could do everything right and get a gust of wind, and that’s that,” Shiffrin said of the competition that will unfold on the blustery, unfamiliar terrain of the Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Center in China.
Depending on her results, her energy level and the schedule, she might compete in all five individual races at these Games, starting with the giant slalom Monday. The idea that she might not win any of them, through no fault of her own but because of bad luck, she admits, is “a little bit of a bummer.”
It is one of the great frustrations of Alpine skiing. Nothing solidifies an athlete’s status as one of the greats like an Olympic medal. But those medals can be won, or lost, in as little as two minutes.
“The globe winner is the best skier of the whole season,” Vincent Kriechmayr of Austria said 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 reach in your career.”
As the wind blew snow across the finish area in Yanqing last week, Kriechmayr spoke in a downcast tone, 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 critical to a legacy,” said Lindsey Vonn, the retired champion. She won the downhill at the 2010 Vancouver Games, a triumph she described as the transformational event in her life in her autobiography, “Rise.”
“It was on my mind going into Vancouver,” Vonn said. “To truly be great, I had to win at the Olympics.”
As Shiffrin headed to the starting hut Monday to defend her gold medal in the giant slalom, the argument for the sheer randomness of the Olympic Alpine competition had most likely never been stronger. There were the usual array of uncontrollable factors that nature can deliver at any ski race, including bright sunshine and warming temperatures that can soften the snow and make the course slower with each passing minute.
In Yanqing, an exposed, blustery and rocky peak, skiers have been saying for days that the wind could be the leading differentiator between the podium and also-rans, which means a life-changing medal could be determined by the luck of the bib draw that assigns starting places. “A difference of half a second,” Travis Ganong of the United States said after his training run Friday.
There is also the cruel truth of the sport, in which there is rarely time to recover from a slight slip or a momentary catching 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 because of a rough night of sleep before the race.
And then there is the newness of the slopes at Yanqing. Olympic competitions often take place on mountains that are not part of the World Cup circuit, but every skier at Yanqing is racing the courses for the first time because the coronavirus pandemic prevented the traditional test events from taking place in the year before the Games.
“We know the hill is steep and all the snow is man-made and maybe going to be cold,” Paula Moltzan, a teammate of Shiffrin’s, said as she prepared to travel to China from Europe. “But every microclimate has its own type of snow.”
So far, the dry cold of Yanqing has kept the snow crisp, light and hard, but the forecast is for warming temperatures throughout the week and an unpredictable wind.
Shiffrin has been thinking for a while now that her ability to quickly learn a new slope may be to her advantage: She is at her core a specialist in slalom and giant slalom, disciplines that typically do not have prerace training with gates set on the course. That often requires racers to arrive in the morning, examine the piste and the gates and have at it. In contrast, speed specialists usually excel by getting to know the same slopes year after year, and learning the best paths through the twists and rolls of the different tracks.
That does not lessen the pressure of the Olympics races, though. Before Shiffrin’s first Games in 2014, she said, she did not understand the gravity of what winning an Olympic medal could mean. Then she won and got a big taste of it, and it was on her mind — perhaps a bit too much — going into Pyeongchang in 2018.
“Control what you can control,” Shiffrin said. “Just try not to get too disappointed about the rest.”