KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA — In one of the cruelties of a sport that separates winners and losers by fractions of a second, Bode Miller's bid for Olympic history fell short in the men's downhill Sunday for reasons other than his own mistakes.

Bidding for his sixth Olympic medal, Miller finished eighth by 0.52 of a second behind gold medalist Matthias Mayer of Austria, who has never won a World Cup race.

With thousands clamoring in the finish area as Miller, running 15th, kicked out of the start gate in pursuit of his first gold medal in downhill to cap a career comeback at age 36, he led at the first two intermediate splits but fell behind in the middle of the course. The volume of cheering steadily fell as subsequent splits showed him falling further behind, despite no glaring errors.

United States skier Bode Miller crosses the finish line and reacts after medaling during the alpine skiing men’s downhill final
United States skier Bode Miller crosses the finish line and reacts after medaling during the alpine skiing men's downhill final at the Sochi Winter Olympics at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

After he crossed the finish line out of the medal count, there was dead silence — the eerie kind that falls when a racer has a bad crash. Miller's dream of becoming an Olympic downhill champion had died.

Miller said the course slowed for those running in the middle of the start order — an occurrence reflected in the race analysis numbers. Miller is usually candid about admitting mistakes in his skiing when they cost him a race, so perhaps he deserved the benefit of the doubt.

Mayer ran 11th and Kjetil Jansrud of Norway, who took the bronze medal, ran eighth. Travis Ganong of the U.S. ran seventh and had the best result of his career, finishing fifth.

There was one exception. Silver medalist Christof Innerhofer of Italy ran 20th, but he also lost time at the bottom of the course.

Temperatures were warm, humidity was high and the sky was overcast — all of which can make a course run slower than normal.

"Everyone in the middle section of the course was losing five-, six-tenths of a second, even more in some cases," Miller said. "Twenty minutes of time (in the start order), or half an hour of time, makes a massive difference in snow conditions. I didn't really make any mistakes in the middle and bottom of the course, and lost a ton of time."

Miller won two of the three training runs.

"The training runs were bluebird, perfect visibility and hard snow," Miller said. "That's the perfect conditions to see who's the best racer. (Sunday) the visibility went away, temperatures are warmer, the course breaks down a little bit. High humidity in that middle (section), where it's all ice, the high humidity brings the water out. The snow just gets slower."

Miller hit a gate panel midway through his run but insisted it didn't slow him. Ganong thought otherwise.

"He had one mistake on this pretty critical turn that goes into the flat section, and if you lose your speed there, it's just a losing battle from there to the finish," Ganong said. "He started the turn a little too early and stuck his head through the panel, kind of lost some speed."

Miller's quest for his sixth medal, which would put him second on the all-time alpine list, hasn't ended. He figures to contend in the men's super-G on Sunday, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he medaled in the super combined Friday or the giant slalom Feb. 19.

"This can be a tough one to swallow, having skied so well in training runs, then come in and be way out of the medals," Miller said.

"I would have loved to win, obviously. This is the premier event, and it's something I've thought about quite a bit. But when it's out of your control, that kind of takes the disappointment away. I don't think I would change much, the way I skied. I skied well enough to win, but it just doesn't happen sometimes."

John Meyer: 303-954-1616, jmeyer@denverpost.com or twitter.com/johnmeyer