By Martyn Herman
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Bode Miller's dream of adding Olympic downhill gold to his chest of medals was obscured by the clouds on Sunday with the American cursing Mother Nature for his disappointing eighth place.
Hoping to win Alpine skiing's most coveted prize before hanging up his race boots, the 36-year-old American began as favourite after setting the pace in two of the three training runs under dazzling blue skies.
A thin veil of cloud ushered in race day, however, and just like the sun's rays, Miller's performance was diluted.
The eighth man to blast out of the starting gate 2,045 metres up in the Caucasus Mountains, six-times Olympic medallist Miller was quickest on the first two split times and still looked in good shape when the third checkpoint showed he was 0.02 seconds slower than eventual winner Matthias Mayer.
Down in the finish the crowd were transfixed, staring up at the mountain expecting Miller to fly over the final crest and speed to gold, but time leaked away and he looked crestfallen as he crossed the line outside the top three, half a second slower than the Austrian champion.
"It's tough, I was looking to win and felt I had a good chance at it and was well prepared," Miller, who missed the entire 2012-13 World Cup season to repair his left knee and prepare for a final tilt at the Olympics, told reporters.
"Visibility was the main thing when I went down, it had changed a lot from training runs when we had blue bird.
"The course conditions and the snow changed a lot, that was the biggest factor of all. The middle and bottom section slowed down so much from the beginning to when I went that you would have had to do something magical to win.
"In ski racing 20 minutes of time makes a massive difference to snow conditions."
Miller received a kiss from wife Morgan in the finish area but nothing could mask his disappointment as he wound his way through a packed media enclosure.
The former wildman has thrilled ski crowds for more than a decade with his white-knuckle rides down the most fearsome pistes in the world.
For three days in training he rolled back the years, pacifying a hill he said could "kill you" and leading some of his rivals to suggest the title was "Bode's to lose".
In the end the sport's great showman could offer little more than half-hearted excuses, although he will still believe he can return from Russia with medals.
"I ski a bit more on the edge than the other guys and I don't have as much tolerance for not being able to see the snow at the beginning of the turns," Miller said.
"I need to know where the little bumps are. I was right on the edge in training but when the visibility goes a little south like it did today it's really hard.
"To know that it's an Olympic race, a medal's on the line and you wanna win it, and to know that you've got to dial it back to 80 percent, that doesn't fit very well."
Miller could not even match his third place in the downhill at Vancouver, or the fifth he achieved in Turin and was beaten by young American team mate Travis Ganong.
"I would have loved to win," he said. "I've thought about this a lot but when it's out of your control that kind of takes the disappointment away a little.
"I don't think I would change much because I skied well enough to win but it just didn't happen."
Despite eclipsing his idol, Ganong, who was seven when Miller began his career, offered words of sympathy.
"He's so fast when he comes back, he's amazing," he said. "Here in the training runs he was so dominant but it's about race day, and everyone brings their A game.
"He's an inspiration, a legend and it's sure nice having him as a team mate." (Editing by Ed Osmond)