Shortly before 9 p.m. local time on Saturday night, Mikaël Kingsbury was the indisputable best in the world at what he does.
Defending gold medalist at men’s moguls. Best performer in the world this year. Skating through another competition with his main Japanese rival starting to fade in the rearview.
You don’t want to count any chickens, but with this guy, history has shown that a little bit of fowl math is permitted. Better clear some space on the front page. Mikaël Kingsbury: Part 3 is about to win Canada the box office at another Olympic opening weekend.
Ten minutes later, that was all over. Kingsbury faltered slightly on his second run. A 21-year-old Swede, Walter Wallberg, closed the show. He scooched under Kingsbury while he was distracted and sat down on the throne.
What Kingsbury had been unable to do to his mentor Alexandre Bilodeau – knock him off on the biggest stage when he was at his peak – Wallberg did to Kingsbury.
Though the word gets thrown around a lot, few people in Olympic history have ever settled for second and a silver medal. But given his pedigree, Kingsbury just did. His body language when it ended told you that much. It wasn’t grief or rage or anything passionate. It was awkward resignation.
Kingsbury has always enjoyed pushing the royal metaphor that goes along with his name. He wears a lucky T-shirt underneath his uniform. It reads, “It’s good to be the king.”
On Saturday, the metaphor got turned around and pointed back on its owner. Had we just seen a “shift on the throne?”
Kingsbury laughed awkwardly.
“Naaaah,” he said, before realizing that joking in this moment might be mistaken for pettiness. “I mean yeah. He gets to sit on the throne today.”
Kingsbury listed off the eight men who’ve won the men’s moguls gold, and in order. Not that he’s considered his legacy at length or anything. He tried to paint the occasion as a really big deal in Wallberg’s life and not such a big one in his own. It was hard to credit.
Kingsbury becomes the first man to win three Olympic medals at moguls. Though weakened, his “best ever” bona fides remain intact.
But in the space of a few minutes, he went from the guy to one of the guys.
For the next four years, Wallberg is the one whose nameplate enters all rooms before he does – “defending Olympic champion.”
By the time he has a chance to fix it, Kingsbury will be a 33-year-old skier with 133-year-old knees.
This wasn’t it for him. But let’s face it – it was probably it. One of the great Olympic careers this country has produced just began its sundowner phase.
This kind of quick hook after years on top is a major part of what make the Olympics so compelling.
It’s fun to watch all the participation and personal bests. It’s more fun to watch new stars being made. It’s not fun to watch gravity get hold of old favourites and yank them back toward Earth for a crash landing.
Polite society agrees on that formulation. You’re only supposed to take pleasure in the ecstasy, and never the agony. But which of those things make for more compelling TV?
As in Kingsbury’s case, sometimes the fall is a narrow thing, a gut punch. And sometimes it’s like watching someone go down a flight of stairs in slow motion.
Also on Saturday, Kamil Stoch competed. Stoch is the LeBron James of ski jumping. He’s won three gold medals at the past two Games.
Stoch of Poland didn’t come here coursing with confidence. He turned an ankle playing foot tennis, of all things, weeks before Beijing. In his return to the biggest stage, he landed so short of the mark that, had you not seen him jump, you’d have thought he slid on his bum to the bottom of the ramp and hopped off. He finished 36th in the initial standings.
Stoch’s Olympics isn’t over, but by his standards it is. He’s 34 now. This isn’t dating. You don’t get better at it as you get older.
So just like that – poof – another legend of a game is on his way out. Another indispensable Olympic career is getting hustled down to the sports graveyard.
Kingsbury is no Stoch. An optimist would say he had one small slip in the midst of a slightly suboptimal outing by a standard that may be the greatest ever set.
But the Olympics isn’t an aggregate measure of your quality. It’s an unfair snapshot of how you did in one instant. If you can’t turn out a perfect picture on demand, you’ve lost it.
“It’s everything on one day,” Kingsbury said. “I’m proud that I’ve been able to do that for 12 years.”
If that isn’t the sentiment of a man who’s started looking backward, I don’t know what would be.
The result is disappointing, but it’s not a disappointment. It just means we celebrate Kingsbury with a slightly different tone – elegiac as opposed to hagiographic.
By a quirk of the Winter Olympics schedule, he is the great Canadian opener of modern times. We will remember him as the guy who helped set the table on the first real night of three consecutive Games.
First time around, he was the young aspirant. The second time, he was the can’t-miss kid (but only in retrospect). This time, he is the toppled giant.
Time and circumstance come for every great athlete, but most suddenly at an Olympics. Kingsbury won’t be the last to feel that change of perspective – from the future to the past – here in Beijing. However, very much in keeping with his story arc, he is the first to do so.
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