Barring any upset, the men's downhill—arguably the most exciting Alpine event in the Winter Games—should be a showdown between two men: America's Bode Miller and Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal.
On paper, the two veterans are evenly matched. Both have won the downhill World Championships (Miller in 2005, Svindal in 2007 and 2013), both are two-time overall World Cup winners (Alpine skiing's most coveted prize), and both stood on the downhill podium at the 2010 Vancouver Games (Svindal collected the silver, while Miller snuck in for the bronze).
And while Miller has been decidedly more impressive than Svindal in training this week, beating him in two out of three practice runs, the Norwegian has admitted to keeping something in reserve for Sunday's medal event.
So, what sets the two speed aces apart? Weight, which could be the deciding factor in who walks away with the gold medal on Sunday.
Svindal weighs a whopping 220 pounds, making him one of the biggest racers on the Alpine circuit. Miller, on the other hand, returned to the slopes this fall following a one-year, knee-nursing hiatus 20 pounds lighter at 205 pounds. The New Hampshire native said he feels fitter and springier than ever, but that doesn't change the fact that the hulking Norwegian now outweighs him by 15 pounds — no small figure in a sport dictated by gravity and decided by fractions of a second.
Svindal has thrown his weight around all season, using his mass to carry speed across flat, gliding sections en route to two come-from-behind victories. It's a successful tactic that's seen the Norwegian finish no worse than fourth all season in downhill.
Meanwhile, Miller's results—thanks to his free spirited, go for broke racing style—have been more erratic. But there have been flashes of brilliance, like his recent third place finish at Kitzbuhel, Austria's storied Hahnenkamm (skiing's Super Bowl), not to mention a training run where he outpaced the world's fastest skiers by nearly a full second (an eternity in ski racing).
Miller thinks his weight loss gamble will payoff in Sochi, where a demanding downhill track could favor fitness over size. Designed by 1972 Olympic downhill champ Bernhard Russi of Switzerland, Sochi's Rosa Khutor downhill drops 3,527 vertical feet (just shy of three Empire State Buildings) in some two miles, making it the second longest course in the world. Not only is the track leg-burning long, but it saves the trickiest section for last — a taxing corkscrew comprised of two huge jumps and a series of swooping turns stands between racers and the finish. Skiers able to preserve enough strength to hold their aerodynamic tucks and execute tight, clean turns through this section could take gold, while those feeling fatigued will surely get thrown off line, dumping too much speed before they hit the finish line.
In Sunday's main event, a leaner, meaner Miller will certainly hope his recent fitness is rewarded with gold.
Published at 10:38 AM CST on Feb 8, 2014