The Sochi Olympics feel Lindsey Vonn’s pain

Once a gold medal favorite at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn won't be competing in the Winter Games after suffering injuries which required two knee surgeries over the course of the past year.
(Frank Fife / Getty Images)

SOCHI, Russia — Moscow hosted the 1980 Summer Olympics but the Americans weren’t there, and Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Games but the Soviets stayed home.

The Houston Rockets claimed two NBA titles in the 1990s while Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan was off chasing curveballs.


Tiger Woods was recovering from knee surgery when Padraig Harrington captured the 2008 PGA Championship and British Open.

The Detroit Pistons swept the Lakers in the 1989 NBA Finals with injured Lakers Magic Johnson and Byron Scott on the bench.

So were the results of these accomplishments diminished?

Well, you could certainly argue it.

Few things devalue a high-level sporting event more than having to put “yeah, but” at the end of it.

The asterisk attached to the 2014 Sochi Games will come after three women’s alpine races. The downhill, super combined and super G will be contested in Rosa Khutor without injured American star Lindsey Vonn.

That’s like holding Olympic sprint events without Usain Bolt.

Vonn, 29, is the defending Olympic downhill champion and would have been a strong medal threat in super G and in super combined as well. She has recorded 54 of her 59 World Cup wins in those three disciplines — with 29 downhill victories.

There are few sure things in sports, especially alpine skiing, especially in the Olympics, in which the favorites have historically underachieved.

Had Vonn been healthy, the shock in Sochi would have been her not winning.

“We’ve lost some of the star value, and that’s a big loss,” Olympic historian David Wallechinsky said this week in Sochi.

Only Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell, with 62, has more World Cup wins than Vonn.

Before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Vonn won five of the six World Cup downhill races before getting gold in Whistler.

The absence of Vonn, out of these Olympics following her second knee surgery in a year, is a huge blow for NBC, which was counting on her star power to drive ratings. That her boyfriend is Tiger Woods only adds to the loss-of-promotion pain.

Vonn’s anticipated return after a horrific crash at last year’s world championships would have been one of the top story lines entering these Games. “The public-relations value, that’s a separate issue,” Wallechinsky said.

In terms of competition and the battle for medals, Vonn’s absence is a gain for the rest of the world. The Austrians are still feeling the sting of earning only four alpine medals in 2010, half as many as the United States.

Don’t expect any international skier to apologize if she ends up winning medals penciled in for Vonn. “They won’t be diminished if you’re not an American,” Wallechinsky joked.

Vonn’s injury has also opened up opportunities for Americans too, but it has come at a cost. You always knew where you stood when you trained against Vonn.

“It’s been a tough situation for the whole team,” U.S. women’s alpine Coach Alex Hoedlmoser said. “Obviously, she is the team leader and the most successful athlete.”

Vonn raised the bar for the women’s speed team. “It actually took the whole team time to really get going,” Hoedlmoser said.

Vonn shredded her right knee at the world championships last February in Austria and her injury seemed to knock some pep out of the entire U.S. women’s speed team.

Vonn had vowed to return for the Sochi Olympics and seemed on track during November training, when she proclaimed herself ready to win again. But on Nov. 19, she tore her ACL again during a training spill in Colorado. She tried to ski through it and finished fifth in a Dec. 8 super G race at Lake Louise, Canada.

Her Olympic dreams ended just before Christmas when she reinjured the knee at a race in France, with boyfriend Woods watching from the finish area.

Soon after, Vonn withdrew from the Sochi Games. She will provide analysis for NBC, from the United States.

Vonn’s loss changes the competition dynamic when you consider her intense rivalries with Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch and U.S. teammate Julia Mancuso.

Hoefl-Riesch, one of Vonn’s best friends, won two gold medals in Vancouver and is back for more in Sochi. The competitive tension between Vonn and Mancuso can’t be replaced.

Mancuso and Vonn, rivals since they were kids, push each other to greatness. People forget Mancuso won Olympic gold before Vonn.

Four years ago, Mancuso thought she had the winning downhill run only to have Vonn overtake her with a stunning run under incredible pressure.

Mancuso was then denied a chance to defend her gold in giant slalom when she was flagged off the course because Vonn had crashed near the finish area. Mancuso had to restart and ended up finishing eighth.

Hoedlmoser said it’s time for the U.S. team to move on.

“Lindsey’s not going to be there,” he said, “so they’re going to have to take her part and step in.”

Vonn is determined to return for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

She is comforted knowing she has already achieved her childhood dream of winning the Olympic downhill gold. “I don’t feel the pressure anymore,” she said in November.

The pressure now turns to all the skiers in Sochi not named Vonn.

Five gold medals will be awarded to women on the slopes of Sochi — three of them just won’t mean as much.

“People in the countries who win will forget,” said former U.S. ski team racer Steve Porino, an alpine analyst for NBC. “But history will remember it as the gold medals in the absence of Lindsey Vonn. That’s a big asterisk.”