Didier Défago has given Switzerland its first gold medal in the Olympic downhill since Pirmin Zurbriggen achieved the feat on Canadian snow 22 years ago.
Défago sped down the Dave Murray course at the resort of Whistler in 1 minute, 54.31 seconds on Monday to match Zurbriggen’s feat at the 1988 Calgary Games.
It is Switzerland’s second medal – and second gold – at the 2010 Winter Olympics after ski jumper Simon Ammann’s success on Saturday.
"He just nailed it right there. He didn't have an easy year because of the other guys who were taking the glory all the time," said Marco Büchel, the Liechtenstein skier who trains with the Swiss team. "Everybody on our team is really happy for him."
While the Swiss pre-race favourite Didier Cuche was still to ski, Défago was already aware he had laid down a special run and nearly fell over backwards into the padding lining the finish area as he celebrated with both arms in the air.
Defending overall World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway took silver, a slim 0.07 seconds behind, and Bode Miller of the United States snapped his medal drought at major events by taking the bronze, only 0.09 behind Défago.
Défago was the 18th man on course and was significantly faster than Svindal and Miller through the upper gliding and flatter sections of the course, then fell behind before posting one of the fastest speeds – 117.2km/h – on the bottom and maintaining a slim advantage through coaches' corner, a big sweeping 180-degree right turn before the finish that is the run's most challenging section.
Défago had never won a medal before at an Olympics or world championships. His lone World Cup victory came in a super-G in Val Gardena, Italy, way back in 2002 before he won the two most prestigious downhills of the World Cup season on back-to-back weekends last year in Wengen, Switzerland, and Kitzbühel, Austria.
At 32 years and four months, Défago has become the oldest man to win the Olympic downhill, beating the previous record established by Jean-Luc Cretier, the Frenchman who was 32 years and one month when he won at the 1998 Nagano Games.
Mario Scheiber of Austria finished fourth, local favourite Erik Guay of Canada placed fifth.
Cuche, 35, was neck and neck with Défago until the last couple of jumps and finished a disappointing sixth, 0.36 seconds off the pace.
Miller won two silvers at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and fistfuls of world championship medals before he went bust in Turin four years ago, making more headlines for his late-night partying than his skiing.
Miller also failed to win a medal at the 2007 and 2009 world championships and considered retiring over the offseason before the Olympics lured him back for one more shot at redeeming himself.
The race was originally scheduled for Saturday but was postponed for 48 hours due to the mix of warm temperatures, heavy snowfall, rain and fog that have wreaked havoc with the Alpine schedule.
Conditions were still overcast on Monday but the temperature fell below freezing overnight, making the course hard enough for skiers to dig their edges in and maintain control at speeds of up to nearly 120km/h.
Flat and fairly dark light created some visibility problems, although there was none of the mid-mountain fog that has plagued the venue for the past several days.
Fans began making their way up to the race hill at the crack of dawn, many hiking up the last few hundred metres to the finish area, located a short chairlift ride up from the valley floor. Many spectators lined the 3.105-kilometre layout but most waited in the finish area, banging cow bells as one skier came down after another.
The men will continue racing with the super-combined on Tuesday.
swissinfo.ch and agencies