Strategy schemes start long before actual race

SESTRIERE, Italy -- Friday night's Opening Ceremony officially opened the Olympics, but there have been games going on at the men's downhill course for days already. Head games. And Saturday's training run, as it is traditionally, was the height of psychological warfare.

Depending on the snow conditions and weather, a skier's start number, especially in downhill where a passing cloud or a gust of wind can mean the difference between first and also-ran, is all important.

Most racers don't want to be first out of the gate (because the track often still has loose snow on it and can be slower), nor do they want to go last (when the track is chewed up by previous racers, it makes for a rougher ride).

The start order for the top-30 in Sunday's downhill is determined by reversing the order of finish from the final training run, so if the goal is to start somewhere between bib 8-15, then racers want to go fast, but not too fast, on their final practice run.

Here's where the chicanery comes in. In order to get a true test of their skills and equipment, top racers charged down the course. But in the final sections, they then had to guess how much speed to dump by throwing their skis sideways down the final pitch in order to cross the line with a run time somewhere in the teens.

Marco Buechel
One of the pre-race favorites, the German skier misjudged the strength of his run, and though he dumped some speed before the finish line, his time was still good enough for third place on the day. Seconds after he crossed the line and saw his time, he let out a yell of frustration, realizing his start number will be 28 on Sunday, far later than he was hoping for.

Bode Miller
Bode's been, understandably, avoiding the media all week. The one sentence heard from him Friday, as he stood 20 yards from the throng of voracious reporters, was "how do I get out of here?" He didn't wait for the answer. After Saturday's run, Miller simply hopped the fence rather than taking the regular path out of the finish corrale, the same path that forces athletes to walk past all of the reporters and offer comments. Still, the silent approach seems to be working for Miller, who's been skiing better with every run. At the fifth and last interval station before Saturday's finish (the last timing station before racers were dumping speed on purpose), Miller was fastest. By a lot. The closest to him? Hermann Maier, a half-second behind. Miller will start 18th Sunday.

Steve Nyman
The U.S. skier, in his first complete year on the World Cup downhill circuit, is still trying to figure out the game. "It's quite interesting, I've never really been in the position or had the confidence to throw speed to manipulate my position, and today I went on a slower pair of skis because the snow is so abrasive, it ruins skis. I didn't know if that would really affect my run or not, so I threw my speed a little, but I was still fast, and a lot of these big dogs are throwing a lot of speed." Nyman finished fourth on the day.

Daron Rahlves
The American, who sat out Friday's training run, had some of the fastest split times Saturday and continues to look like the frontrunner on this course. Rahlves checked his speed in the course's final meters, but for the most part, he said he has no time for head games. "If it was perfect, I'd like to be starting No. 5, or something like that, but it's never perfect and I've never been able to get this thing down ever. Any of this bluffing or shutting it down, I don't know how some guys do it consistently over and over again like [Michael] Walchhofer and those guys. I tend to try to figure it out and I come down and I always screw up. It's just one of those things about our sport that I'm just kind of like forget it."

Many thought Rahlves' decision to take Friday off was actually the biggest attempt at trickery of all. His explanation? Rahlves can't get himself to take the run easy, so he had to rest.

"If I come up, I can't really ski relaxed," Rahlves said. "You see Walchhofer coming down and sliding his turns all over the place and standing up, but I'm not going to ski like that. I can't get myself to do that until the last little section, so I decided it was best just to kind of get away from it [Friday]."

The final spot
Ironically enough, it was hard to find anyone who was happy about going fast after Saturday's run. Even Scott Macartney, who beat teammate Marco Sullivan to the fourth and final spot on Sunday's U.S. downhill team. "I am psyched. At the same time, I'm kind of bummed for Marco because he doesn't have another event to ski. I have a super G and combined spot that's definite, but at the same time, I wasn't going to let up in any way today. It was a battle for us and it was so close [Friday] and today, our team has a lot of depth and hopefully it will be like that for the next few years."

Carrie Sheinberg, three-time national ski racing champion and top American finisher in the alpine slalom event at the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.