A clipped flag cost Bode Miller in the downhill.
The 2014 Winter Olympics have already delivered the first major surprise in the form of the men's downhill Alpine skiing event.
In reality, perhaps we should have seen the surprise coming. Austria's Matthias Mayer continues a long line of surprise gold medalists in the event, following in the footsteps of Antoine Deneriaz in 2006, Jean-Jean-Luc Cretier in 1996 and Tommy Moe in 1992.
The race was thrilling, with the top three finishers separated by a grand total of 0.1 seconds, with the unexpected results adding even more drama.
Here's a look at the biggest shockers from one of the signature events of the Winter Games.
Matthias Mayer Wins
The Austrian Mayer is not a totally anonymous name, as he did win one of the three training sessions leading up to the event. Nevertheless, Mayer has never won a World Cup race, and his best finish in a World Cup downhill event is a paltry fifth.
The 23-year-old Mayer won the event with a time of 2:06.23 on a treacherous course, finishing 0.06 seconds ahead of Italian silver medalist Christof Innerhofer. Per Bill Pennington of The New York Times, even Mayer expressed surprise at his victory:
“This is unbelievable,” Mayer said afterward as his countrymen cheered and serenaded him near the finish line. “I thought maybe in a few years I could dream of this sort of achievement. It came sooner.”
“I am young but I have been around ski racing a long time,” said Mayer, who may be the most surprising Olympic downhill winner since Jean-Luc Crétier of France in 1998 in Nagano. “I know how much this means to me, my family and my country. It is for your legacy.”
The previously powerhouse Austrian ski team did not win a medal in the 2010 Vancouver games, so Mayer's triumph is a huge step forward for their program. And at an age when most are not yet ready to contend, Mayer may be back for more in future Olympics.
Aksel Lund Svindal Finishes Fourth
One of the co-favorites on the day was Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal, a two-time overall World Cup champion and a silver medalist in the downhill at Vancouver. However, the Norwegian skier faltered, finishing fourth and off the podium entirely. After the race, Svindal expressed his regrets at pushing too hard throughout the course:
Win some and… I tried getting that gold and pushed hard. Too many mistakes and ended up 4th. Not that sweet in #Olympics Thanks for support— Aksel Lund Svindal (@akselsvindal) February 9, 2014
Indeed, Svindal blamed numerous small mistakes that piled up and kept him 0.29 seconds away from a medal, according to Graham Dunbar of the Associated Press:
"I think I had pretty good speed, but I had too many small mistakes," Svindal said. "Twenty-nine-hundredths is not a big margin, and that's what those mistakes will cost you, for sure."
"No one ever goes and just grabs their medals," Svindal said. "You've got to put down a perfect run, and under these conditions, that is actually really hard."
Those conditions Sunday included finding and maintaining speed in weaker sunshine, more humid air and softer snow than racers experienced since Thursday in training runs in which Svindal, Miller and Mayer had excelled.
At 31 years old, Svindal may have lost his best chance at downhill Olympic gold. Barring injuries, Norway's top skier will likely return for the 2018 Games, but perhaps not as a favorite.
Bode Miller Finishes Eighth
Like his co-favorite Svindal, Bode Miller fell flat on his way to a demoralizing eighth-place finish. The 36-year-old had an opportunity to become the oldest Alpine gold medalist, adding to his already decorated career but fell flat after clipping a gate at the sport's premier event.
The finish is surprising considering Miller's pre-race form. The five-time Olympian won two of the three training runs before the event and had gained momentum, suggesting that a gold medal was no longer a far-fetched hope. As ESPN.com notes, the altered weather conditions may have also had an effect on Miller:
He had the fastest times on two of the three training days, when the sky was blue and sunlight draped the snow. On Sunday, a cloud cover made it tougher to see, and Miller pointed to that as a key factor.
"I don't have as much tolerance for not being able to see the snow. I need to know where the snow is," Miller explained. "The beginning of the turn, middle of the turn, I need to know where the little bumps are, because I'm right on the edge."
If there's any consolation for Miller, it is that he still figures to medal in other events where he is stronger:
Bode Miller's flameout in downhill is a disappointment, but it wasn't his likely medal event. Super-G and super combined will be best shots.— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) February 9, 2014
Nonetheless, eighth place is a massive letdown after Miller's nearly flawless pre-race showings. Miller will end his Olympic career without a downhill gold, but a successful end to the Sochi games will largely erase the memories of Sunday's disappointment.