The customs officer's victory was a major upset by a man unaccustomed to success. The 31-year-old, who has never won a major downhill, defied the formidable Austrian team to give France their first downhill title since the great Jean-Claude Killy won on home snow in Grenoble in 1968. Cretier made the most of his early start number to clock a time of 1min 50.11sec. Norway's Lasse Kjus, the defending Olympic combined champion, came second with 1:50.51 with Austria's Hannes Trinkl third in 1:50.63.
Maier survived spinning into the air after just 18 seconds of his run down the and cartwheeling over on to his shoulder. He careered through the two sets of safety netting before somersaulting into heavy snow well off the course. He picked himself up groggily and after a moment signalled that he was uninjured.
The Austrian had won 10 times in the World Cup this season, including two downhills, and was a favourite, not only for this event but all the alpine gold medals, but after the accident he pulled out of the combined downhill, having finished seventh in the slalom.
Could his misfortune have had anything to do with the date, Friday the 13th, or the fact that he was wearing the unlucky Japanese number of Four - or Shi, which means death.
Another Austrian hopeful, Andreas Schifferer, the current World Cup downhill leader, had to wait for 11 minutes as course marshals rebuilt the fencing.
The 23-year-old, who survived a near fatal crash in Kitzbuhel two years ago, appeared to be shaken by watching Maier's crash - the two men are close friends, sharing a room on the World Cup circuit. Schifferer was off Cretier's pace at the first check point and continued to fall further behind to finish out of the medals.
Graham Bell also missed a place on the podium, but he earned a place in the records by becoming the first man to race in five consecutive Olympic downhills. He was 23rd of the 28 finishers - four places ahead of Paul Schwarzacher-Joyce, Ireland's sole competitor at the Games. The British No 1, Andrew Freshwater, missed an early gate.
Tommy Moe, the American defending champion, had a bad draw. In the sunny conditions, the course was breaking up because of the bright sunshine by the time he went down 17th and he had no hope of retaining his title. He clocked 1:51.43.
The Austrians gave a measure of revenge in the combined when Mario Reiter took the title on a spectacular Olympic debut. The 27-year-old Austrian, who led after the slalom, held off the challenge of Kjus and his team- mate, Christian Mayer.
Whether or not success will change Reiter's life, Ross Rebagliati said he is ready to alter his lifestyle after nearly losing his snowboarding gold medal. The 26-year-old Canadian was cleared of wrongdoing on appeal after testing positive for marijuana following Sunday's giant slalom. Sitting with the medal around his neck, Rebagliati told of his relief at being able to keep the gold, as well as his shock at the initial news he was going to lose his title.
"Winning the medal was the best moment of my life - losing it was the worst moment of my life," he said. "It all happened in a short amount of time. It was an amazing feeling - quite a ride.
"Life is a learning process - if you make bad decisions you have to deal with that. I'm going to change my lifestyle, I'm not going to change my friends. But I might have to wear a gas mask from now on."