Skiing: Commanding Defago plots a perfect course

Swiss produces run of his life to blow away more famous and fancied competitors
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The Independent Online

Didier Defago's time was supposed to have passed, at least as a contender in the most fabled event of these Winter Olympics, but no one mentioned it to the 33-year-old Swiss.

So he took hold of the men's downhill with the run of his life here yesterday.

It may not have been as ferocious as the Olympic descent of the great Franz Klammer, or as elegant as that of the legendary Jean-Claude Killy, but still it had to be weighed in gold.

He set a line and produced a certainty of purpose that ransacked the hopes of much more fancied contenders, including two Swiss team-mates.

His time of 1:54.31 smashed the hopes of America's enigmatic superstar Bode Miller, who for a little while stood at the foot of the 3,105-metre course believing that he might just have relaunched himself as one of the most compelling figures in the vast market of North American sport.

But then the poor boy from the hills of New Hampshire had to watch the faultless descent of Defago, which removed Miller from the gold medal position and set a standard which more celebrated performers such as Carlo Janka, known as "the Iceman", and another Swiss, the veteran Didier Cuche, just couldn't meet.

It was not as though Defago was a stranger to Alpine glory, having won World Cup downhill races at the formidable location of Kitzbühel and also Wengen. Seven years ago he was also crowned the downhill champion of Switzerland. But the beautiful style and technical skill of his countryman Janka, and the sheer know-how of the 35-year-old Cuche were considered much more viable credentials here.

But then it was Defago announcing that this indeed was his time as he became the first Swiss winner of the downhill since Pirmin Zurbriggen pulled it off in Calgary 22 years ago. When he slid to a halt after a run perfectly geared to an icy course which would soon show the slowing effect of sunshine, he fell back with outstretched arms as he saw his time and knew that the gold was almost certainly just a ceremony away.

"It was a crazy run," he said, "because the conditions were different to training but I was very pleased as a I came down. I felt that I was always in control and I said to myself, 'This is good, you can do something.'

"I don't worry about how people rate my chances. The important thing was that after three Olympics and my world championships I knew I had the experience to handle the situation. Then when I saw my time, I thought, 'Yes, this could really be it'."

Miller had the same feeling when he produced one of his great runs, a requirement he placed on himself after his disastrous showing in Turin four years ago, a terrible denouement after picking up two silvers in Salt Lake City in 2002. Miller once completed a downhill course on one ski – and finished just 30 seconds behind the winner. "You have to be pleased when you produce a good run, and I really thought I had a chance but those other guys did really well," he said.

One killer blow came from Norwegian world champion Aksel Lund Svindal, who knocked two hundredths of a second off his time. The other was delivered when Defago showed that he was indeed the master of the day, setting a mark, seven hundredths of a second better than Svindal, that applied too much pressure on all his rivals.

It was pressure that leading Canadian Manuel Osborne-Paradis scarcely needed as the crowd chanted his name and he slumped to 19th place. Even more severely affected was his team-mate Robbie Dixon, who pushed too hard and wiped out.

Defago was never in such danger as he shaped a run that was full of composure and relentlessly sought to shave off those vital fractions of time. When Klammer won in 1976 it was described as the most violent, heart-stopping and risk-filled descent in the history of the event. Defago's was a clinical example of what happens when an old pro measures his chances and decides that on a certain day he really can do the best business of his life.

"You work very hard, you take the disappointments and the injuries, and you put it against the hope that one day something like this happen," he said. "Now it has, it makes everything worthwhile."

For his team-mates Janka and Cuche he might have been talking in a different language. However, the biggest difference was probably that between the man who had gold and the one who had to settle for bronze. Miller thought, after all, for a little while that he had achieved one of the most dramatic redemptions in sport.

He left the Turin Olympics reviled by all but the fiercest admirers of his bold style and wild behaviour. US team officials were appalled when rather than inspect with his team-mates the Turin course on the morning of the downhill, he chose a lie-in. He had gone there with the promise of five medals and he left with a headache and much disrepute. Still, he came here with a new resolve and a promise of discipline and sharply improved performances and for some part of yesterday morning it seemed that he had delivered beyond most people's dreams.

He watched a clutch of rivals fail to hit his mark and the smile on his face began to widen. But then Defago ruined one of the more colourful scripts still to be played out here, with Miller aiming himself at his first Olympic gold in the super-G, super-combined, giant slalom and slalom.

His mother, Jo, sometime ago delivered a philosophical verdict. "Yes," she said, "Bode makes some mistakes. But you have to remember he's just a young fella from the hills."

His misfortune yesterday was to meet a slightly older one from the mountains, one who had taken the precaution of knowing perfectly the course that would make his career and his life.