SESTRIERE, Italy -- I'm reclining on a restaurant sundeck that overlooks the Italian Alps, a fur blanket protecting me from the late afternoon chill. The sun is sinking to my right, on its way to a sunset as spectacularly colored as a vintage Houston Astros jersey. I raise my glass of beer, take another sip and glance down to the slalom course below where Bode Miller is about to begin a run.
This is sooooo much better than the Shea Stadium press box.
I'm in the mountain resort village of Sestriere for the spectacular day/night doubleheader that is the men's combined. The downhill portion is raced in the brilliant sunshine of a crisp Alpine afternoon at Sestriere Borgata, while the slalom runs are held a couple miles away under the lights and a full moon at Sestriere Colle.
Unless, of course, they crash.
While there is a noticeable lack of Olympic energy in Torino -- unless you're at an event, you would be hard-pressed to know the Olympics are going on -- this is not an issue here. Tucked into the Alps about two hours by bus from Torino, Sestriere offers the ultimate Olympic experience. Flags hang from the buildings and Olympic banners decorate the streets. Small shops sell chocolate and fashionable ski sweaters. Wood huts line the central square, offering mulled wine, freshly melted cheese, buttery croissants and hot chocolate so rich and delicious you gain three pounds just ordering a cup. Fans from all over the world pack the streets, proudly wearing emblems from dozens of countries. There's a group from America. And one from Canada. Switzerland. Italy. Croatia. Argentina. Nepal.
And look -- there are four gorgeous models strutting around to promote a new TV series called "Aspen."
This is sooooo much better than curling.
Gauging the downhill course from TV is like looking at Angelina Jolie's driver's license photo. It doesn't begin to do it justice.
You can't appreciate the downhill while standing at the bottom of the course, either, because all you can see are the final couple hundred meters. To get a better perspective, I watch the first few runs from the ledge of the narrow roadway winding high above the finish line. I can see the entire downhill course from here, and this is where you really get a feel for how insane this event is. Television cameras offer some pretty spectacular angles, but to gain a real appreciation for the course, you should pick up the chair you're sitting in, carry it to the top of the nearest staircase, pour olive oil on the stairs and spread banana peels down their length, sit back down in the chair and have someone give you a push.
But that's only the beginning. The downhill has a vertical drop of 2,998 feet, which is roughly the equivalent of Seattle's Space Needle balanced on top of the Chrysler Building stacked on top of the Empire State Building. It would be one thing if this drop were spread out over a reasonable distance of, say, 10 miles. But it's not. It drops that distance in just two miles. For every yard in distance, you drop almost a foot in height.
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It's a long ways down.
No one should ski down such a slope unless Blofeld's SPECTRE agents are chasing you with submachine guns. There shouldn't be a gold medal for the winner; there should be a leggy Bond girl in stiletto heels waiting in a hotel room with a martini.
If anyone needed a reminder of how dangerous the downhill is, Lindsey Kildow provided it Monday when she crashed horribly on a training run. They airlifted her to a Torino hospital, but incredibly she skied the downhill Wednesday (and finished eighth). Then again, that's what you have to do in this sport. The longer you wait to get back on the skis, the harder it becomes.
"It's really tough. It depends on what your injury was, but a knee injury can be really tough to get over physically and mentally to get yourself back in the game," American skier Scott Macartney says after his downhill run. "It takes quite a while to get your confidence back and throw yourself down the mountain the way you need to."
"You never really get it completely taken care of," says USOC sports psychologist Jim Bauman. "But it's like anything else, the more you deal it with it the better. If you hold it back and not talk about it and not work with it, the higher the potential that it's going to come back up again. You need to get it out."
Bauman says he stresses probability over possibility to skiers after a crash. Yes, it's possible they will crash, but it's much more probable they won't. Of course, that's easy to say, not so easy to accept when you have nightmares about crashing and fresh reminders every race. Indeed, two runs into the combined, Filip Trejbal of the Czech Republic crashes in spectacular fashion, pinwheeling down the course before coming to rest against the fence line. Minutes later, Australia's Jono Brauer crashes as well, prompting this comment from the course announcer: "Unfortunately, he ends his race against the fence."
Which is a polite, understated way of describing it. Kind of like saying Evel Knievel's jump to clear the fountains at Caesar's Palace didn't make it.
Watching all this, I don't know understand why people give Bode Miller such grief for suggesting he has skied while wasted. Frankly, you would have to be drunk to try such a thing.
For athletes, the Olympics might be two weeks of stomach-churning anxiety while worrying that a lifetime of training will come down to less than a second. For spectators, however, the Olympics are like the biggest college party you ever attended, only with much better beer and plenty of attractive exchange students with alluring accents. I run into a group of Americans from New Hampshire who are staying in a rented camper for five dollars a night. At that price, the heating system can't be too good, but given their current blood-alcohol content, I'm sure they won't notice.
Many of the bigger countries set up hospitality houses in Torino or the mountain venues for their citizens. Most require a passport documenting you're a citizen, but an athletic or press credential often suffices. I met an Argentine luger at the 2002 Olympics shortly after his country's currency lost its value. He lived several weeks on the meals he received at hospitality houses.
There are two such houses in Sestriere: Swiss House and Deutsche Haus. The folks at the Swiss House welcome me (and everyone else), selling delicious raclette cheese and drinks, handing me an array of travel brochures and telling me where to go after the Olympics (Zermatt and the Matterhorn). If I lingered a little longer, I have no doubt they would give me my own secret Swiss bank account.
Deutsche Haus is a little more problematic -- in typical German passion for record-keeping, they want me to register and they electronically scan my fingerprint. Now, I don't feel comfortable giving the local grocery store my club-card number, so there's no way in hell I'm giving the Germans my fingerprints. I'm American and I believe in civil liberties, and I will not submit to this invasion of my privacy.
Especially since I notice a sign saying the Germans stopped serving the free buffet five minutes ago.
However, I do have a nice white wine and a bowl of penne at the press dining room overlooking the mountains, followed by my beer at the restaurant overlooking the slalom course.
This is sooooo much better than watching the Seahawks practice in the middle of August.
Night skiing might be common on recreational slopes, but it is highly unusual at the Olympics. And very welcome. By the second slalom run, the course will be glistening under the lights, as pure as the white on a Dodgers Opening Day uniform. Attendance is disappointing -- the grandstand is barely half-filled, but those who came are waving flags and clanging cowbells and blowing horns and dancing to bad '70s music. It's not a wild atmosphere but it is a very pleasant one.
Bode's time of 1:38.36 on the downhill run left him in first place heading into the evening slalom runs, and he increases that lead with his first of two runs. As skier after skier fails to beat his time, he appears to be in excellent shape for the gold medal. Long after that first run, however, Bode's name suddenly disappears from atop the leader board and reappears at the bottom with the letters DSQ alongside it. He is disqualified for straddling a gate, a mistake the judges caught on the replays. He seems less concerned with losing the gold than with skiing what he considered a bad run. "At least I don't have to go to Torino [for the medal ceremony]," he says with a shrug before walking off the course.
Miller might be out, but teammate Ted Ligety is in third place and in good position for a medal. He moves into even better position when he turns in the best run of the day to edge into the lead with only two skiers left who can catch him. The worst he can do is bronze.
Croatia's Ivica Kostelic sweeps down the course and finishes with a combined time of 3:09.88, a half-second behind Ligety. Only one skier can beat him, Austria's Benjamin Raich. He held a .86-second lead over Ligety heading into the second run. But Raich misses a gate near the top of the course. He's out. At age 21, Ligety is an Olympic champion.
The American fans erupt with applause. Teammates Macartney and Steve Nyman tackle Ligety and the three roll in the snow in joy. Then Macartney and Nyman raise their teammate on their shoulders in triumph
"I put down two really solid runs, but I can't believe I'm an Olympic champion. I don't understand it," Ligety says. "I don't even know what's happening right now, for sure."
After a day of drinking, some spectators on the course no doubt share that confusion. The day is drawing to end, and it's time to catch the bus back to Torino. There is no leggy Bond girl waiting anywhere, but Ligety is rolling in the snow with his teammates, the beer is flowing at Swiss House and the mountain slopes are glowing under the light of a full moon.
And there go the Aspen girls again. This is sooooo much better than working for a living.
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.