Winter Olympics: Monster of the slopes aims to join the giants

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The Independent Online
A former bricklayer who was dumped from ski school is poised to put Austria back on the summit of Olympic alpine racing.

Mike Rowbottom reports from Nagano, Japan, on the fall and rise of the gravity-defying Hermann Maier.

There has been much earnest discussion this week about the quality of the snow here. Unlike the powdery snow on which the Europeans race, it is wet - the reason being that these mountains in the heartland of Japan form a natural battleground for the warm air coming in from the Pacific, and the cold Siberian air from the opposite direction.

Result: snow which makes ski racing unpredictable. Germany's Katja Seizinger summarised the fears of competitors when she described the courses as "a lottery".

So when the most startling new talent in the sport, Hermann Maier, arrived for the winter Games, there was one very obvious question to ask.

"Hermann, what do you make of the snow in Nagano?"

"Well," the Austrian replied. "It's just as white as it is in Flachau." And the mighty shoulders which have powered him into a virtually unassailable position in the World Cup standings shook with laughter.

The nicknames which this bear of a man has been given - "Monster", "The Herminator" - are pointers to the awe in which he has come to be regarded in the world of skiing.

This season he is poised to become the first Austrian to win the overall World Cup title since Karl Schranz in 1969, having won 11 events so far in downhill, giant slalom, super-giant slalom races and combined.

That kind of performance, across that range of disciplines, puts him in the company of the greats. Graham Bell, Britain's five-times Olympic skier, likens what Maier is doing this season to the performances of Jean- Claude Killy, Ingemar Stenmark and Alberto Tomba. "But they were doing it in their prime," he said. "And Maier is doing it from nowhere."

The circumstances of the Austrian's fall and rise are the stuff of comic books - a ski version of Alf Tupper, "Tough of the Track", in The Hotspur.

After being dropped from the Austrian national ski programme at the age of 15 because of a knee injury, he became a bricklayer, while working as a part-time ski instructor on the slopes of his native Flachau.

Years of slapping mortar and carrying bricks transformed the undersized teenager. He is under six foot tall, but to his opponents he appears almost six feet wide. "It turned out to be good training," he said.

The opportunity to return to the top flight came in 1996 when the World Cup tour arrived in his hometown. As a man who was well acquainted with the slopes, he was asked by the race organisers to become a forerunner, a volunteer job which entails skiing the course before the competitors to remove loose snow.

Maier was well aware that all the leading Austrian officials would be watching; so he took an audacious risk. Like an athletics pacemaker with ideas above his station, Maier shifted himself down the mountain with the abandon which has characterised all his racing. The result is now the stuff of legend.

"It was a lot of pressure, that's for sure," Maier said at the time. "I knew it was the last chance for me to make something happen in my career. But when I left the starting gate, I wasn't thinking of the pressure. I just wanted to ski well, and to have fun. I went for it."

And it went for him - he ended the day 12th fastest and was soon being sent to compete on the 1996 European Cup circuit, which he won. He registered his first victory in a World Cup event at Garmisch early in 1997 and his first full World Cup season has been stunningly productive.

He has been the leading figure in a huge Austrian revival this season - in the world rankings, they provide seven of the top 10 male skiers. But unlike his colleagues, Maier's success does not have its roots in the hyper-efficient Austrian training regime.

"Maier is the new phenomenon in skiing," said the American Tommy Moe, who defends his Olympic downhill title tomorrow morning. "He's raising the whole level of interest in skiing. He is a real monster. You can understand whey they call him Hermann Munster. He's got so much more hunger, because he's so new to it all.

"He cheats gravity. His strength and balance make him so fast that for me he is the favourite here in three events.

"But he is beatable. Remember, Americans always rise to the Olympic Games and Austrians don't."

Moe's victory at the Lillehammer Games provided a similar shock for the European racers as his compatriot Bill Johnson's gold medal in the downhill at the 1984 Games.

But it would be a major upset if the Austrians failed to reflect their dominance on the slopes of Hakuba this week.

Maier, who finished in the top 10 during both days of downhill practice, has played down his chances, forecasting that the course - technically challenging, but not as steep as he likes - is more suited to his team- mate Andreas Schifferer.

"Usually in practice you will see Maier concentrating on different sections of the course during each run," Bell said. "He will blast one bit, then ease down on the next. But on the day, he will put it all together."

Hakuba, and the world, awaits.