The Sochi Olympics have featured several surprise winners, and the gold medalists themselves sometimes have been the most shocked.
While established Olympians such as Alpine skier Bode Miller and snowboarder Shaun White have struggled, a younger generation of athletes -- especially in extreme-type sports such as snowboarding and freestyle skiing -- are taking over.
Iouri Podladtchikov, a 25-year-old snowboarder from Switzerland, said he was so shocked at winning the halfpipe and knocking two-time champion White into fourth place that he didn’t know exactly how to react.
“It feels very shaky, I’m about to faint,” he told reporters right after winning the event. “I’ve got a really bad feeling in my stomach. That’s what it feels like, I should probably eat something.”
Both downhills had unexpected winners.
The men’s race was won by 23-year-old Austrian Matthias Mayer, the youngest gold medalist in that event since 1980, who had never finished higher than fifth in any downhill.
The women’s downhill resulted in the first gold-medal tie in an Alpine event in Olympic history, between Tina Maze of Slovenia and Dominique Gisin, the first Swiss woman to win in downhill in 30 years.
Olympic historian David Wallechinsky said such upsets are common at the Olympics, where the medals are based on a race that takes place once every four years.
“These things happen, that’s the way sport is, in particular sports that are based on one run, two runs,” he said in an interview in Sochi. “It’s that two minutes of your life when everything falls together.”
While 36-year-old Miller failed in his first two bids to add to his U.S.-record five Alpine medals by finishing eighth in the downhill and sixth in the super combined, all four American golds so far have come in newer sports -- including three making their Olympic debut.
The U.S. swept the medals yesterday in the inaugural men’s ski slopestyle final, with 22-year-old Joss Christensen taking the gold.
“I believe that the athletes are getting younger, the younger athletes are starting to take over,” Christensen said in a news conference. “We’re all playing around and having fun, living the dream.”
Some of the older athletes also are doing well. Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, 40, tied a Winter Olympics record with his 12th biathlon medal and Italian luger Armin Zoeggeler, also 40, became the first person to win a medal in six Winter Games.
The Dutch have dominated in speedskating, and the Norwegians have captured most of their 13 medals in cross-country skiing. Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov won the pairs free skating gold, giving Russia the title for the 13th time in the last 14 Olympics.
Podladtchikov, who is known as “I-Pod,” was by far the oldest medalist in the halfpipe. The silver medal was taken by 15-year-old Ayumu Hirano of Japan, the youngest medalist ever in an Olympic snow event, and 18-year-old Taku Hiraoka of Japan took the bronze.
Wallechinsky said it’s all part of an International Olympic Committee long-term plan to bring in new sports that appeal to a younger audience.
“For many years now they’ve been trying to boost the youth audience for the Winter Olympics, and I think it was a sense that they were losing youth audience and the Olympics were becoming fuddy-duddy, and so they brought in the extreme sports.” he said. “It has worked.”
Some of the younger athletes are even bringing their own language to the Olympics, with snowboard slopestyle gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg, 20, peppering his news conferences with words such as “awesome,” “gnarly” and “sick.”
The American described his winning run this way: “Yeah. So I, uh, dropped in, and I did a cab 270 onto the first down rail, then followed up with a half-cab on, back-five off, on the second feature, and then a half-cab up, lay backside 180 off the cannon box, then a cab double cork 1260 Holy Crail from 10 off the toe with rocket air, then a back 1620 Japan.”
Repucom, a global sports market research agency, said there has been much more worldwide conversation focused on Kotsenburg than Miller during the Sochi Games.
There were 129,121 posts on Feb. 6-13 that mentioned Kotsenburg, with 94 percent coming from Twitter. There were 36,311 posts during that same period that mentioned Miller, according to Repucom statistics.
It’s enough to make White, 27, who has cut the wild red hair that inspired his “Flying Tomato” nickname, feel like a member of the older generation.
“I definitely take things a bit more seriously nowadays because I’m just getting older,” he told reporters before the halfpipe event. “When you’re younger, you don’t really think about it. You just have long red hair and do your jumps and tricks.”