Reuters - Tue, 16 Feb 00:27:00 2010
Switzerland's Didier Defago left his more fancied team-mates in the shade to win the showcase men's Olympic Alpine skiing downhill at Whistler.
The 32-year-old, who had failed to crack the top 20 in two previous Olympic downhills, blasted down the hill with a winning time of one minute 54.31 seconds to become the first Swiss winner in 22 years.
Norway's 2009 overall World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal took the silver medal, 0.07 seconds slower, and American showman Bode Miller ripped down the gleaming Dave Murray piste for bronze as the favourites were again overshadowed in the sport's most prestigious race.
With Didier Cuche tipped for glory despite a thumb injury, and Carlo Janka another leading contender, it was the other Didier who became the first Swiss to win a men's Olympic Alpine title since Pirmin Zurbriggen in Calgary in 1988also on Canadian snow.
"It hasn't sunk in yet. You had to really fight on that piste, it was pretty bouncy. It was really a beautiful run," said the 32-year-old after seizing his first Olympic medal in his third Games.
"This morning I knew that the course would suit me well. I have been looking for a podium for a long time," he added against a backdrop of clanging cowbells.
Cuche finished sixth, Janka 11th.
Starting 18th, and two places after Svindal had ousted Miller from the gold medal position by 0.02, Defago made no mistakes.
He was a mere 0.03 ahead of Svindal at the second intermediate but the smooth Swiss stretched his advantage in the closing stretch when the legs are most tired and any mistake carries a heavy price.
Miller's bronze cemented his comeback at the age of 32, making up for his failure to win a medal in Turin four years ago when he was over-hyped and under-performing and adding to the two silvers he won in Salt Lake City in 2002.
"I was really nervous this morning," said the American, who used an older pair of skis which ran well at the top but less so at the bottom. "Once I got going, I felt really, really solid."
The hopes of Canadian Manuel Osborne-Paradis, cheered on by a boisterous home crowd in the Whistler sunshine, disappeared on the lower part of the piste and team mate Robbie Dixon crashed out after a wild start.
"Going across the flats, I knew I didn't have the speed I needed," said Osborne-Paradis.
There was also disappointment for Austria's Michael Walchhofer, runner-up in Turin four years ago, who was 10th.
Britain's Ed Drake said he was 'pretty pleased' with his 38th place finish. The 24-year-old from Kingston-upon-Thames posted a time of 1:57.91 to finish just below midway in the 64-strong field.
"I would like to have finished in the top-30, but a top-40 is good ≠ it was better than my bib number," he said.
"I skied well today. I made a couple of mistakes, but I'm pretty pleased with my performance. This is very much a learning curve for me, but it's a great experience."
In an alarming incident late in the race, a course worker slid onto the piste as Australian Craig Branch went past her towards the finish.
There was no defending Olympic champion, with France's Antoine Deneriaz retiring since his surprise gold in Turin and world champion John Kucera of Canada absent due to injury.
Monday's race had been postponed from Saturday due to fog and high temperatures. Skiers awoke on Monday to crisp conditions and clear skies.
Factbox on Defago:
Place of birth: Monthey, Switzerland
Residence: Morgins, Switzerland
Previous Olympic results:
14th place, 2006 Winter Olympics, giant slalom
16th place, 2006 Winter Olympics, super-G
26th place, 2006 Winter Olympics, downhill
Third place, 2008/09 World Cup, downhill
Third place, 2008/09 World Cup, super-G
Defago, whose other occupation is an architect, started skiing at the age of two. His younger brother, Daniel, is also an international level alpine skier.
His Vancouver victory was something of a surprise, beating more fancied team mates Didier Cuche and Carlo Janka to become the first Swiss to win a men's Olympic Alpine title since Pirmin Zurbriggen in Calgary in 1988.
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