Winter Olympics: At last the prodigy becomes a favourite son

King of the hill: Stephan Eberharter
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The Independent Online

Stephan Eberharter has always been consistent. Eleven times in 13 World Cup races in his career he has finished second to Hermann Maier. Second to Maier in the 2000-2001 overall World Cup, the most prized annual title in the sport, second in the downhill rankings the same season, and in the super-g the previous season. Silver behind Maier's gold in the giant slalom at the last Olympics, in Nagano. Anger is not a trait to which Eberharter will readily admit, merely an avalanche of frustration.

"Second to Hermann so many times," he says, laughing. "I've had to show a lot of patience and, yes, it was very frustrating. But when success comes, you know, it's such a great feeling because you have worked so hard to get there."

It is a measure of the respect with which the quiet Austrian is held that there would be no more popular gold medallist in Salt Lake City. Eberharter, gentle, stolid, reliable old Stephan Eberharter, has at long last confirmed the potential first isolated by the Austrian selectors more than a decade ago. "Stephan is the thinking man's skier," says Nick Fellows, Eurosport's skiing commentator, who competed against Eberharter back in his days on the British squad. "He's seen some of his best friends killed, he's seen others thrown off the squad. Anyone who has been around for as long as he has and survived deserves everyone's respect."

At the age of 32, Eberharter has turned the Alpine season into a procession, a belated fulfilment of his personal wish-list. He has become only the third man to win the four classic downhills, the speed skier's equivalent of the tennis Grand Slam. For the first time in 12 years, he won in Kitzbühel, the Wimbledon of the Alpine circuit. Final confirmation came on Saturday in St Moritz, when his fifth downhill win of the season brought his first overall World Cup downhill title. Olympic gold is the only credible climax to such a dominant year. Possibly two, preferably three, one more than Maier in Nagano. "Three chances," he says, mulling over the thought. "Three chances for gold."

Eberharter's sporting story contains all the classic ingredients: prodigious brilliance, injury, disillusion, tenacity, return, failure and triumph. But it was not even that straightforward. Like almost every Austrian child, he was brought up on skis. "My father's hobby was taking me and my two brothers to races," he says. "It's many, many years ago now, so I can't remember my first race, but in the clubs, at school, that's where it all starts. I was no different from any other kid." Except for a transparent talent which quickly attracted the scouts from the Stams Ski High School, the national school of excellence. Of Austria's 76-strong team for these Olympics, two thirds graduated through the rigorous regime established in the late Sixties at the former Cistercian monastery.

Eberharter was a star pupil and, when he won double gold in super-g and combined at the 1991 World Championships, the chosen keeper of a precious sporting heritage. "The Austrians are as passionate about their skiing as we are about football," says Fellows. "If English kids want to be David Beckham, Austrian kids want to be Franz Klammer."

Eberharter's father filmed Klammer's historic plunge to gold at Innsbruck in 1976 and Stephan was entranced by the grainy footage. "Stephan grew up worshipping Klammer," adds Fellows. "One of the few sad things about his season was that, in Garmisch, they couldn't hold the downhill because of the conditions. If Stephan had won that, he would have completed the full set of downhill victories. Only Klammer had done that."

The parallels with the great Olympian became uncomfortable in Eberharter's second season when he broke a collarbone and then, the following year, tore knee ligaments. By the time he was ready to compete again, the 1994 Lillehammer Games had gone and the Austrians had begun to look elsewhere for their next Klammer. "It's a very tough system," says Fellows. "The atmosphere within the Austrian team is absolutely cut-throat and a lot of that is created by the coaches, who are themselves under enormous pressure." For what must have seemed an eternity, Eberharter struggled on the fringes of the squad, the failed prodigy, ignored by the very people who had pampered him. His knee still hurt, but not as much as his pride.

"I was in this valley and I just could not get out of it," he recalls. "I had problems with my health, I had problems with my equipment, but I always knew I would come back and I always knew I was one of the best, from the days as a kid in ski school. But there were times when you missed the feeling of winning so much."

Yet a successful return to the Austrian squad in 1998 was merely the beginning of another game of patience. As Eberharter looked set to reclaim his position as Austria's favoured son, there emerged from nowhere a bricklayer's son, an untutored bull of a man with no fear and dubious style, a racer whose plain speaking and anti-establishment roots claimed a particular hold on the nation's affections. Not only was Eberharter's frail mentality seemingly exposed by the Hermannator week after week, he had to assume the mantle of fall guy for a failing system. Klammer, though also forced to come back from injury, never had to endure that sort of ignominy. But Eberharter persevered and, in the final macabre twist prompted by Maier's horrific motorbike accident last August, emerged as the faithful defender of Austrian honour in Salt Lake. It is some burden.

"Stephan wants to win for Stephan," says Fellows. "But tourism is Austria's economy and skiing is 70 per cent of that economy. The government pours millions into the sport and all the hoteliers and bed-and-breakfast owners up and down the Tyrol, who have had a terrible season, want everyone to believe that Austria is still the best place to go skiing. The whole of Austria needs the boy to win."

No more so than the man himself. "I know now after all these years how the business works," he smiles. "I know how to give them what they want. But I don't let the pressure get to me, not now. On day X, everything has to be perfect, you need luck, you have to be in good shape, with good equipment, if one thing isn't working properly, then I won't win.

"I've learnt so much, good and bad, from life. I'm the one who has worked so hard for this, no one else. Every time I race or train I risk my life. But if I hurt myself, only me takes care of me. I am very thankful for the way things are now, but the rest of my life is not depending on me winning a gold medal." Three golds, three chances. Eberharter likes the odds.