Deneriaz surprises blue-riband favourites

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The Olympic downhill's reputation for drama was further enhanced here on the sunny but icy reaches of the Sestriere Borgata course as a late, late run from the French outsider Antoine Deneriaz dislodged Austria's Michael Walchhofer, the reigning World Cup champion, from the gold medal position.

By the time Deneriaz took to the slopes as the 30th starter - no one has ever won an Olympic downhill from so far down the order - it appeared as though Walchhofer had ensured that his first Olympic medal would be golden with a time of 1min 49.52sec. None of the other big contenders - the defending champion Fritz Strobl, fellow Austrian Hermann Maier or the two leading Americans, Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves, could match it.

But with some of the 8,500 spectators drifting away, the 29-year-old Frenchman's performance in the early part of his run stopped them in their tracks as a surge of excitement ran through the arena.

As the intermediate times registered alongside the large-screen image of the last of the 30 seeded skiers to compete, a trio of his supporters began yelling in earnest. Timing one, 0.14sec faster than the leader. Timing two, 0.09 faster. Timing three, 0.43.

The trio were beginning to jump up and down on the spot. Timing four, 0.51. Timing five, 0.74. By now the threesome were crouching, their arms out, imploring their man over the line, and the noise of the crowd had grown into a deep roar embellished by klaxons and cowbells.

After crossing the line in 1min 48.80sec the man in the No 30 bib spun round to register the statistics of his performance before shooting both arms aloft. He was 0.72sec faster than Walchhofer, the largest winning margin in the event since 1952. Deneriaz, predictably, was delirious. "It's the best day of my life," he said. "It's like a dream. No one believed it could be true."

The man from Bonneville, who turns 30 in March, stands only 16th in the current World Cup rankings, and has only recently fully recovered from a horrendous training injury just over a year ago when he tore his knee ligaments.

But he has now added his name to an illustrious list of previous French winners of this event - Henri Oreiller in 1948, Jean Vuarnet in 1960, Jean-Claude Killy in 1968 and, eight years ago, Jean-Luc Cretier. He also takes his place among the surprising winners of the Olympic downhill - Austria's Leonhard Stock, promoted from reserve the day before competition in 1980, the Americans Bill Johnson and Tommy Moe, who won in 1984 and 1994 despite never having won World Cup events, a "distinction" shared by Cretier.

Cretier's victory at the age of 31 was earned with a piece of sound strategy as he slowed before the notorious gate seven which saw 14 of his competitors fall out of contention, most spectacularly in the case of Maier. The giant Austrian was back in the Olympic downhill arena yesterday after missing the 2002 Salt Lake Games after a motorcycle accident, but could not break into the medal positions, finishing sixth, a place behind Miller, in 1min 50.44sec. "My performance was not so bad," Maier said. "But I had no power in my legs and that's the reason I'm not so fast." Maier will now try his luck in the super-G and Giant Slalom events which he won in 1998.

Miller, who will compete with Maier in those two races as well as taking part in the slalom and the Combined, said: "I was super-aggressive, but I made some little, small mistakes. I feel the slalom is coming together, and I know I can ski well on the downhill, so I have a good chance in the combined."

US hopes had been high for Rahlves, a runaway winner of the first training run here. But when the Californian came through in 1min 50.33sec, only enough for seventh place behind the Austrian leader, a sigh of resignation passed through the US supporters.

The last of the fancied skiers had been and gone. "What a bummer," said one. "Still, no surprises this time." At that moment, Deneriaz was lurking 10 places further down the order.

Meanwhile, Finlay Mickel, who had been looking at equalling Martin Bell's best ever British Olympic downhill placing of eighth, or even, if he had his "day of days", a medal, had to content himself with 25th place, 2.68sec behind the winner. In retrospect the skirl of bagpipes played in the stand by Mikel's father took on a mournful air.