Ties are a rarity in a sport decided by hundredths of a second.
But that's exactly what happened in Wednesday's women's downhill on Day 5 of the Sochi Games. For the first time in Olympic history, two skiers clocked the same time to win gold
Switzerland's Dominique Gisin and Slovenia's Tina Maze shared the top spot, both hitting the finish line with an identical time of 1 minute, 41.57 seconds on Sochi's undulating Rosa Khutor course.
And that's where the similarities stop.
The soft-spoken Gisin crashed out in Vancouver's downhill four years ago and hasn't won an international ski race since 2010. Meanwhile, the vivacious Maze — considered one of Alpine's glamour girls — is a double World Champion who broke all kinds of ski racing records during her historic 2013 World Cup campaign.
One needn't look further than both skiers's disparate finish line reactions to understand the key differences between them. As soon as the reality had sunk in, dark horse Gisin quietly cried into her cellphone. Maze, on the other hand, relished the spotlight upon finishing her run, immediately kissing the ground, throwing snow and unleashing a slew of celebratory f-bombs (not sure if the latter should be considered the "Olympic Spirit," but we'll give the newly-minted gold medalist a free pass).
As for the race itself, it was as atypical as the result.
After skiing to an early lead from bib No. 8, Gisin (never considered a favorite) seemed happy to occupy the provisional top spot until better seeded skiers kicked out of the start house. But as temperatures soared to nearly 50 degrees, the Russian snow started to wither under a relentless sun. Instead of remaining firm and slick, the track became soft and choppy, forcing racers to make critical line adjustments to avoid getting rattled and thrown off course by the deteriorating conditions.
By the time the favorites hit the hill, it appeared that a rutted slope wouldn't allow the world's fastest women to make a fair run at gold. Racers like Julia Mancuso of America and Maria Höfl-Riesch of Germany scrambled to find the quickest route around the gates only to fall short (finishing 8th and 13th respectively), while other hotly touted contenders like Austria's Anna Fenninger simply failed to complete their runs.
Only Gisin's teammate Lara Gut — one of the fastest skiers on this season's World Cup Alpine Tour with five wins — seemed poised to challenge, setting the quickest split times with powerful, beautifully executed turns and a tactical line. But by the time Gut tucked through the finish, she'd somehow slipped to 0.10 behind Gisin on the course's slushy lower-third (she'd eventually settle for bronze). All the popular Swiss skier could do was clasp her helmet and shake her head, forced to lament what might have been.
Given the inconsistent conditions, it seemed that a surprise victory was all but sewn up. And no one looked more stunned than Gisin, who breathlessly watched as racer after racer failed to top her time.
Running bib No. 20, Maze was the only skier left with a remote shot at taking over first place, and the Slovenian quickly made good on her favorite status, setting the fastest first split. Her lead increased over the next three intermediate times, and as she reached for the line to stop the clock, a new best time seemed inevitable. The crowd held their collective breath and Gisin went wide-eyed as Maze hit the line in the exact same time as the Swiss leader, right down to the hundredth of a second.
Though two gold medals have never been issued for the same event in Olympic Alpine skiing history, there have been three ties for silver and one for bronze. The most recent came in 1998, when Switzerland's Didier Cuche and Austria's Hans Knaus split the silver medal position in the men's super-g.
Ties sometimes happen on Alpine skiing's World Cup Tour, though they still can't be considered typical. In fact, Gisin's first World Cup win also happened to be a tie — she notched the same time as Swedish great Anja Pärson at a downhill in Altenmarkt-Zauchensee, Austria in 2009.
Next up for the women is Saturday's super-g, the final speed event of these Olympics before switching to the technical giant slalom and slalom races. It'll be another showdown between specialists Maze and Gisin as they square off against Mancuso, and the other favorites, not to mention the unseasonably balmy temperatures, which could give us another surprise result.