Commentary

Americans miss medals in giant slalom

Updated: February 24, 2010, 6:38 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- The clock is ticking on the Vancouver Olympics. The closing ceremonies are just six days away, and the anxiety to produce results that reflect the pre-Games optimism is reaching a pressure point.

After losing to the United States and now facing the prospect of having to beat Germany and then Russia just to even sniff a medal, it's Sydney or the bush for Team Canada hockey and the Austrian and Swiss ski teams.

Such a wonderful phrase, which is of Australian origin meaning "success or nothing" and was popularized by Charles Schulz in "Peanuts," but so obscure that even my Aussie cab driver had no idea what it meant.

Carlo Janka
Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty ImagesCarlo Janka won gold in the giant slalom and added to the Swiss' medal count.

"Charlie Brown?" he said, quizzically. "You mean that cartoon fellow?"

The smothering pressure lessened Tuesday for the beleaguered Swiss, when Carlo Janka won the gold medal in the giant slalom. The Swiss, always tough in skiing, have sputtered in Vancouver, winning but two medals, a gold and a bronze for the men while the women remain shut out. Janka, who ranked first in the World Cup rankings in giant slalom, won both legs of the competition and was not threatened on the day.

The pressure, however, intensified Tuesday for the Austrians, who entered the Games as favorites after winning fourteen medals in the Alpine discipline in 2006 -- but have so far not won a medal in the men's discipline. The women have maintained the honor of the country, with Andrea Fischbacher winning gold in the super-G and Elisabeth Goergl winning bronze in the downhill.

The men's doughnut stings even more when Austria placed three of the top six skiers after the first run, including a second-place run from Romed Baumann. Baumann fell back after the second, and Austria finished 4-5-6 in the final standings, beaten out for the final two spots on the podium by a surging Team Norway. Kjetil Jansrud, 11th after the first run, won silver, and -- with a determined and spirited second run that saw him break fast, struggle, gain time and then lose time at the end -- Aksel Lund Svindal won his third medal of the games with a bronze.

The Austrian panic had begun. With one Alpine event remaining for the men -- the slalom Saturday -- one Austrian journalist summed up the disappointing results of the Austrian ski team thusly, "Come not home if you don't win a medal."

Sydney or the bush indeed …

Meanwhile, the Americans cruised down the Whistler Creekside slopes with no team pressure in Tuesday's men's giant slalom but plenty of individual expectations. With each successive run, the American team potentially adds gravy to a wildly successful seven-medal performance, which explained why the earth didn't shake when Bode Miller, tired and erratic on his first run, wiped out after missing a right-side gate and was finished for the day or when Ted Ligety, a strong medal contender, finished ninth. The U.S. ski team has already placed its stamp on the games.

After Miller was out, he skied to the side anonymously and disappeared for the day.

[+] EnlargeBode Miller
Olivier Morin/Getty ImagesBode Miller paid a price for his aggressive skiing Tuesday in the giant slalom.

Miller already has gold, silver and bronze medals from this tournament, and a strong run would have put him in contention to be the first man to win four Alpine medals in a single Olympic games, but he never quite had it together on his first run. He nearly totaled his run after clipping a gate early on and never righted himself. He later said that he employed an aggressive style that put him in contention for more medals, but the downside of his strategy is a higher risk for trouble.

"I'm taking more risk than everyone else. That's partly why I'm able to get medals. It looks easy when you make it," Miller told The Associated Press. "When you crash like today, it's like, 'Oh, huh?' I did a good job today, too," Miller continued. "I was right there. I was right on the edge."

For Ligety, giant slalom was perhaps his best, last shot at a medal -- he is not particularly strong in the slalom -- but both runs carried their share of disappointment.

After finishing six-tenths behind the leader, Ligety -- currently top-ranked in the world in giant slalom and in the top three the past three years running-- knew he needed a blistering second. He broke out of the gate fast, but, while trying to maintain speed, lost his technique, flying through the air around a couple of turns, which cost him time.

"A lot of guys really raised their level of skiing, with that, it was hard to stay close, but I was skiing well but I just made too many mistakes," Ligety said. "I knew I had to come down and really push the limits and be clean the whole way down and have a good run because I was six-tenths back and that wasn't really insurmountable. It wasn't time you didn't think you could make up. I definitely didn't feel defeated between runs, but I just didn't ski the way I wanted to with those mistakes."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

ALSO SEE