Fall and rise of the Herminator

Mike Rowbottom reports on the risks that paid off for a bricklayer with attitude

THE MOST dramatic story of the 18th Winter Olympics was played out on the slopes of Mount Karamatsudate yesterday - the fall and rise of Hermann Maier.

Three days after his fearful tumble in the men's downhill, the Austrian whose awesome size and power have earned him the nickname of Monster, or The Herminator, returned to win the Olympic gold medal which so many people had forecast for him before these Games.

His time of 1min 34.82sec in the super Giant slalom left him more than half a second ahead of his nearest challenger, Didier Cuche of Switzerland, with his Austrian team-mate, Hans Knauss, taking the bronze in the same time.

Considering the circumstances of his crash, it was extraordinary that the 26-year-old former bricklayer was still walking and talking, never mind skiing. Just 17 seconds into the downhill course, he had taken off at the turn which caused problems to a succession of the competitors and smashed through two safety nets before coming to rest, prostrate on his front, 125 metres further on.

If you believed in portents, they were not good. The race was on Friday 13th, and Maier was skiing fourth - a number which represents death in Japanese culture.

The Herminator, however, was unterminated.

Despite sustaining shoulder and knee injuries which caused him to miss the following day's slalom competition, the man who has dominated this season's World Cup competition returned yesterday to awesome effect.

Since breaking into the Austrian team two years ago, Maier has established the reputation of a man who takes fearful risks, a racer best viewed through half-open fingers. But even he approached this first race back with an element of caution.

"It was a problem for me mentally," he said. "I needed to come through the first gate to overcome the barrier of being in competition again. I wasn't scared to go out there again, but I was anxious. The crash is something which keeps going over and over in my head - even more so now I have won the gold. I do not know how I escaped from it to be able to race again. It was the worst accident I have ever had. I walked away from it because the next competitor had to come down, but the doctors spent all day treating me."

But while he was able to face up to a 650-metre descent through 35 gates, the idea of watching his own video nasty - something that has been replayed worldwide - scares him to death.

"I've not watched it on TV because I can't," he said. "If I do see it, it won't be before the end of the World Cup season - and even then I'm not sure."

Yesterday's race will make far easier viewing for him. "It wasn't a perfect race, and I wasn't in perfect form," he said. "It was important to me to ski again after the accident but I could not be a fool."

Predicted or not, to win a gold here was a stupendous achievement for a man who only forced his way back into the Austrian team in 1996 after being dropped by the national skiing programme at the age of 15 following a knee injury.

Since he gave up his trade - "I laid my last brick on October 26, 1995 at 3pm," he said with a grin - and took up his passion, he has made himself both rich and famous.

But there was lingering resentment over the circumstances of his crash, which occurred at a point where the International Ski Federation officials had made an alteration to the course.

"I know I made mistakes in the downhill, but unlike other skiers I had not received any information about the gate which had been moved or the tailwind which had such an effect. And I would like to know why I was not told. There should have been a practice run before the event - then I and others would not have been troubled at that point. The only way I could have taken that turn was in a tank."

Seizing their chance to get up to date with the alpine skiing programme, the organisers made the most of the good weather by running the women's downhill and the downhill section of the women's combined, which will conclude today. Both were won by Germany's Katja Seizinger, who became the first woman to retain an Olympic alpine skiing title.

"It was a really good day for me," Seizinger said. "I really like these conditions." Not bad going for someone who said before the Games that the state of the alpine slopes meant that every event would be "a lottery". If that was so, she drew two lucky tickets.

Winter Olympics results and timetable

ALPINE SKIING

Men's super-G

1 Hermann Maier (Aut) 1min 34.82sec

2= Didier Cuche (Swit) 1:35.43

Hans Knaus (Aut) 1:35.43

4 A Fattori (It) 1:35.61; 5 K Aamodt (Nor) 1:35.67; 6 P Jaerbyn (Swe) 1:35.72; 7 D Rahlves (US) 1:35.96; 8 T Moe (US) 1:35.97; 9 L Kjus (Nor) 1:36.25; 10 F Nyberg (Swe) 1:36.31. British: 31 G Bell 1:39.80; 33 A Freshwater 1:39.89.

Women's downhill

1 Katja Seizinger (Ger) 1min 28.89sec

2 Pernilla Wiberg (Swe) 1:29.18

3 Florence Masnada (Fr) 1:29.37

4 M Suchet (Fr) 1:29.48; 5 S Gladishiva (Rus) 1:29.50; 6 P Street (US) 1:29.54; 7 R Cavagnoud (Fr) 1:29.72; 8 A Meissnitzer (Aut) 1:29.84; 9= K Gutensohn (Ger), H Gerg (Ger) 1:29.96.

Women's combined downhill (slalom today): 1 K Seizinger (Ger) 1min 28.52sec; 2 P Wiberg (Swe) 1:28.86; 3 R Gotschl (Aut) 1:29.34; 4 M Ertl (Ger) 1:29.76; 5 B Obermoser (Aut) 1:29.82; 6 F Masnada (Fr) 1:29.87; 7 H Gerg (Ger) 1:29.92; 8= S Schuster (Aut), M Dorfmeister (Aut) 1:30.10; 10 B Perez (It) 1:30.54.

CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING

Women's 4x5km relay

1 Russia 55mins 13.5secs

(O Danilova, N Gavryliouk, L Lazutina, E Vaelbe)

2 Norway 55.38.0

(B Martinsen, M Mikkelsplass, A Moen-Guidon, E Nilsen)

3 Italy 56.53.3;

(S Belmondo, M Di Centa, K Moroder, G Paruzzi)

4 Switzerland 56:55.2; 5 Germany 56:55.4; 6 Czech Republic 56:58.7; 7 Finland 57:34.3; 8 Sweden 57:53.7; 9 Ukraine 57:54.8; 10 Japan 58:22.8.

FREESTYLE SKIING

Men's aerials elimination (first 12 qualify for final): 1 D Dashchinsky (Bela) 249.04pts; 2 B Swartley (US) 247.08; 3 A Mikhailov (Rus) 246.21; 4 E Bergoust (US) 232.61; 5 A Capicik (Can) 227.39; 6 S Kravchuk (Ukr) 226.65; 7 J Bean (Can) 224.86; 8 N Fontaine (Can) 219.60; 9 A Grishin (Blr) 217.84; 10 C Rijavec (Aut) 212.51; 11 A Valenta (Cz Rep) 205.50; 12 S Foucras (Fra) 200.27. British: 20 K Harbut.

Women's aerials elimination (first 12 qualify for final): 1 N Xu (Ch) 182.01pts; 2 A Tsuper (Ukr) 178.46; 3 V Brenner (Can) 174.86; 4 N Stone (US) 174.00; 5 H Lid (Nor) 168.79; 6 X Ji (Ch) 167.42; 7 C Brand (Swit) 165.07; 8 D Guo (Ch) 163.95; 9 T Kozachenko (Ukr) 162.09; 10 M Rohrbach (Swit) 161.76; 11 Y Kliukova (Ukr) 161.59; 12 O Yunchik (Ukr) 156.95.

ICE HOCKEY

Men's final phase: Group C: Finland 8 Kazakhstan 2; Czech Republic 1 Russia 2. Group D: Canada 4 USA 1; Sweden 5 Belarus 2.

SPEED SKATING

Women's 1500m

1 Marianne Timmer (Neth) 1min 57.58sec

(world record)

2 Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann (Ger) 1:58.66

3 Chris Witty (US) 1:58.97

4 E Hunyady (Aut) 1:59.19; 5 A Friesinger (Ger) 1:59.20; 6 A Thomas (Neth) 1:59.29; 7 C Pechstein (Ger) 1:59.46; 8 J Rodriguez (US) 2:00.97; 9 S Bazhanova (Rus) 2:01.54; 10 N Polozkova (Rus) 2:01.56.

ICE DANCE Final standings.

1 Pasha Grishuk/Evgeny Platov (Rus) 2.0pts

2 Angelika Krylova/Oleg Ovsyannikov (Rus) 4.0

3 Marina Anissina/Gwendal Peizerat (Fr) 7.0

4 S-L Bourne/V Kraatz (Can) 7.2; 5 I Lobacheva/I Averbukh (Rus) 9.8; 6 B Fusar-Poli/M Margaglio (It) 12.0; 7 E Punsalan/J Swallow (US) 14.0; 8 M Drobiazko/P Vanagas (Lith) 16.2; 9 I Romanova/I Yaroshenko (Ukr) 18.4; 10 K Winkler/R Lohse (Ger) 19.8.

TIMETABLE

Today

Alpine skiing: Women's combined slalom, first leg 00.30, second leg 04.00.

Ski jumping: 120m team event 00.30.

Speed skating: Men's 10,000m 06.00. Men's 1,000m qualifying and final; Women's 3,000m relay qualifying and final 10,000.

Ice hockey: Women's bronze medal match 05.00; Final 09.00.

Biathlon: Men's 10km sprint 04.00.

Television

BBC2: 07.45-08.45, 12.00-14.40, 19.00-20.30. Eurosport: 24-hour coverage.

Tomorrow

Alpine skiing: Men's giant slalom first leg 00.30, second leg 04.30.

Cross-country skiing: Men's 4x10km relay 01.15

Freestyle skiing: Men's and women's aerials final 01.15.

Figure skating: Women's short programme 10.00.

Ice hockey: Men's quarter-final 05.45 (two matches), 09.45 (two matches).

Television

BBC2: 07.45-08.45, 12.30-14.40, 19.00-20.30. Eurosport: 24hr coverage.

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