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Though the Olympic spirit is a real thing, Justin Kripps and Alex Kopacz thought they were seeing a surreal amount of it.

Immediately after they'd come across in the gold medal position in two-man bobsleigh on Monday night, a great throng people ran onto the track to mob them. Most were Canadians. Two were their closest rivals, a German pair.

Kopacz's head swung around in alarm as a great big Teuton in spandex began pounding him on the shoulder.

Kripps said later that he thought, "Man, that's nice. They're really excited we won."

Kopacz had to be told the same thing three times by his Deutsch co-celebrant before he registered it – they'd all won. A tie.

All four, enormous men wedged together on the top tier of the podium as they did the phony medal celebration that follows an event.

The German driver, Francesco Friedrich, hugged Kripps so enthusiastically and for so long that Kopacz glared over at him with something approaching jealousy.

After four runs down the track and more than five kilometres travelled in total, the Canadians and Germans had come in at the same hundredth of a second: 3:16.86.

(Olympic clocks are capable of measuring to the 10,000th of a second, but a hundredth is the accepted maximum in bobsleigh. If the official timekeepers know the truth of it, they are sworn to secrecy.)

The hundredth is a surprisingly old sporting standard. The so-called "Kirby Two-Eyed Camera" revolutionized the finish line in the 1920s. It simultaneously photographed the tape through one lens and a clock through another. It was first put in use at the 1932 Olympics, accurate to the hundredth of a second.

That was when things began to change.

Before that point, the Games had been defined by clear margins of victory. When two 100-metre sprinters came across at roughly the same time in 1896 – 12 seconds or thereabouts – they both got gold. It was about resoundingly beating the man beside you.

But after the Kirby Camera, the Olympics turned into a quest for time – reducing it, finding it, making it up.

In no sport is locating that infinitesimal advantage more key than bobsleigh. It is the rare discipline in which seconds don't matter because they are too huge. The difference between first and fifth on Monday night was one quarter of one of them.

Kripps, 31, has been on the hard end of this fact. He was sixth in Sochi, well off the winning pace (set, as it turned out, by a juicing Russian team).

When the doping disqualifications were finally sorted out just a few weeks ago, Kripps found himself in an even more painful spot – fourth. If the race had been run clean, he'd have missed out on a medal by 0.14 of a second.

That loss was still the better part of Kripps's 2014 Olympics. Shortly thereafter, he was controversially inserted at the twelfth hour as the driver of the top Canadian four-man sled. The teammate he replaced, Chris Spring, was wounded, and said so.

It all came to tears when Kripps turned the boat over during the race. It was an especially low moment for a Canadian program that is meant to pay out in medals like a green grocer.

Perhaps as a result, and though he was best two-man driver in Europe this past season, Kripps came into these Games slow-rolling his chances.

"I want a medal but I don't need one," he said Friday. "If we don't, I'll be disappointed but at the same time, give me five minutes and I'll be smiling again."

Even his teammates weren't buying that one.

"He may have been trying to play it a little too cool by saying that," said veteran colleague Jesse Lumsden.

In general, sliding involves some oddly faithless relationships. Bandmates are constantly splitting up, getting back together or otherwise co-mingling. Sliding is like ABBA, except the Swedes aren't much good at it.

All this sled-hopping rarely results in hard feelings, or, at least, any you hear about. The margins are so narrow that competitors have been conditioned to accept that minute advantages will be ruthlessly taken, regardless of whom they embarrass.

Lumsden was recently Kripps's brakeman, and then he wasn't. He watched Kopacz get the gold he's chased for three consecutive Olympics and seemed genuinely pleased for him.

Spring and his partner finished an eternity behind Kripps – 1.38 seconds. He was one of the first men on the track to celebrate.

Unlike Kripps, who says very little, Spring is a transplanted Australian who talks a great deal. He said all the right things, but you could still hear some hurt in, "It wasn't a great day for me … I know I'm one of the best drivers in the world."

Spring lingered on the fence for a long time, watching Kripps and Kopacz being led pliantly from one camera crew to the next.

It was achingly cold up at the sliding centre. Kripps and Kopacz were wearing thin shells, no hats, no gloves and no socks. One supposes they were warmed by victory.

There was a lovely symmetry to all this. Twenty years ago, Canadian driver Pierre Lueders tied for gold in the two-man bobsleigh – the only other time it's happened in an Olympics. Lueders was the guy who taught Kripps to drive. He was there on Monday night, coaching the South Korean team. Time is a flat circle.

While Kripps stood there with a goofy grin on his face, the Germans he'd tied were a few feet behind him, sharing the exact same look. There was not one whit of 'If only I'd been a bit faster …' in either team's aspect. The sense seemed to be more 'I'm just so glad I wasn't a bit slower …' "It's two other guys who are just as happy as you are," Kripps said, looking over at them and delighted at the idea.

All Olympic golds are special, but a tie is sweeter somehow. Though the disappointment of loss can never be eliminated, a draw softens it.

Especially in a sport this inconstant, it is the closest opponents can come to a shared romance.

Japanese short track speed skater Kei Saito failed an out-of-competition doping test on the day of his arrival in Pyeongchang and has been expelled from the Winter Olympics, Japan team officials said on Tuesday.