Didier Défago has given Switzerland its first gold medal in the Olympic downhill since Pirmin Zurbriggen achieved the feat on Canadian snow 22 years ago.This content was published on February 16, 2010 - 07:50
In the men's 15-kilometre freestyle cross-country race, Swiss skier Dario Cologna has won his Olympic debut, a result he didn't think he could achieve.
Monday evening's bumper result is Switzerland’s second and third gold medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics after ski jumper Simon Ammann’s gold success on Saturday.
Défago sped down the Dave Murray course at the resort of Whistler in 1 minute, 54.31 seconds on Monday to match Zurbriggen’s feat at the 1988 Calgary Games.
"He just nailed it right there. He didn't have an easy year because of the other guys who were taking the glory all the time," said Marco Büchel, the Liechtenstein skier who trains with the Swiss team. "Everybody on our team is really happy for him."
While the Swiss pre-race favourite Didier Cuche was still to ski, Défago was already aware he had laid down a special run and nearly fell over backwards into the padding lining the finish area as he celebrated with both arms in the air.
Defending overall World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway took silver, a slim 0.07 seconds behind, and Bode Miller of the United States snapped his medal drought at major events by taking the bronze, only 0.09 behind Défago.
Défago was the 18th man on course and was significantly faster than Svindal and Miller through the upper gliding and flatter sections of the course, then fell behind before posting one of the fastest speeds – 117.2km/h – on the bottom and maintaining a slim advantage through coaches' corner, a big sweeping 180-degree right turn before the finish that is the run's most challenging section.
Défago had never won a medal before at an Olympics or world championships. His lone World Cup victory came in a super-G in Val Gardena, Italy, way back in 2002 before he won the two most prestigious downhills of the World Cup season on back-to-back weekends last year in Wengen, Switzerland, and Kitzbühel, Austria.
At 32 years and four months, Défago has become the oldest man to win the Olympic downhill, beating the previous record established by Jean-Luc Cretier, the Frenchman who was 32 years and one month when he won at the 1998 Nagano Games.
Mario Scheiber of Austria finished fourth, local favourite Erik Guay of Canada placed fifth.
Cuche, 35, was neck and neck with Défago until the last couple of jumps and finished a disappointing sixth, 0.36 seconds off the pace.
Miller won two silvers at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and fistfuls of world championship medals before he went bust in Turin four years ago, making more headlines for his late-night partying than his skiing.
Miller also failed to win a medal at the 2007 and 2009 world championships and considered retiring over the offseason before the Olympics lured him back for one more shot at redeeming himself.
The race was originally scheduled for Saturday but was postponed for 48 hours due to the mix of warm temperatures, heavy snowfall, rain and fog that have wreaked havoc with the Alpine schedule.
Conditions were still overcast on Monday but the temperature fell below freezing overnight, making the course hard enough for skiers to dig their edges in and maintain control at speeds of up to nearly 120km/h.
Flat and fairly dark light created some visibility problems, although there was none of the mid-mountain fog that has plagued the venue for the past several days.
The men will continue racing with the super-combined on Tuesday.
For his part, the 23-year-old Cologna collapsed across the finish line in the men's 15-kilometre freestyle cross-country race, after completing the course in 33 minutes, 36.3 seconds.
"It was an incredible race for me," Cologna, who comes from Graubünden, said. "I had a very good feeling from the start. I am so happy. I didn't believe that I could win the 15K."
It is Switzerland's first ever Olympic gold medal in the discipline.
Italian Pietro Piller Cottrer won the silver, finishing 24.6 seconds behind Cologna. Czech skier Lukas Bauer was a further 11 seconds behind to collect a bronze medal to go with the silver he won in the 15-kilometre classical style race at the 2006 Turin Games.
Cologna, the 2009 Tour de Ski winner, is currently third in this season's World Cup overall standings. Although the race was wide open, many expected Bauer to battle it out with World Cup leader Petter Northug, the best skier to come out of Norway since the great Bjoern Daehlie and three-time world championship gold medallist.
Cologna was delighted at Switzerland's double gold night.
"We have always been a winter sport nation, even if I'm the first person ever to win a gold medal in the cross-country for Switzerland," Cologna said.
"I saw how Didier Défago won the downhill before my race and that gave me extra motivation. I hope, of course, that there are more medals for Switzerland."
swissinfo.ch and agencies
Swiss press jubilation
“Gold Rush“ was the title of the tabloid Blick. “We have waited 22 years for this scream,” said the paper, referring to a picture of a celebrating Défago. It was also a birthday present for Défago’s wife Sabine, who turned 35 on February 15, the paper revealed.
Meanwhile, “Super Dario” had made the day perfect just 90 minutes after Défago’s win, added the free newspaper 20 Minutes.
The Zurich-based Tages Anzeiger and Neue Zürcher Zeitung also had the double triumph on their front pages. “The Swiss have, with three golds in three days, never started so well at an Olympics,” observed the Tages Anzieger.
Tribune de Genève was also jubilant. “After Simon Ammann’s gold medal, those yesterday of Dario Cologna and Didier Défago put the Swiss delegation on the road to glory. A road paved with gold in this extraordinary Olympiad start for our country.”
Le Temps: “The magic of the Games has struck once again. The famous notion that the unexpected can happen in one day has once again taken place,” while La Liberté added: “A magic Monday for Swiss sport!”
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