Miller on high for the low-cost Games

Mickel the big slalom hope for Britain as Americans prepare to end story of Austrian monopoly
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The Independent Online

Welcome to the skating on thin ice Olympics. It would be tempting to label them the cheapskate Games except for a lavish if over-long opening ceremony with its of cast of thousands and cost of millions. True, Pavarotti, Georgio Armani and Sophia Loren, who normally do not come inexpensively, did come for nothing. But elsewhere there is much evidence of scrimping and saving.

Not least in the £120 a night media villages which make the comparative comforts of Belmarsh seem quite appealing. But that is our problem. Turin's is to make sure there is no meltdown in the snow or on the ice.

But if Chancellor Gordon Brown wants to know how to run a cheapo Olympics perhaps he should spend a few days here assessing how the Italians have managed to put on an economy-class global event despite the reluctance of their government to spend a euro more than necessary on facilities. It has been a fine line between prudence and parsimony, but they have made it. Just. Athens on ice, they have been calling it. Yet if Athens was a last-minute job, then Turin has been last-second one.

Whereas their summer counterparts save the best till last, reaching their climax with a grand finale, the Winter Games prefer to push off with the main attraction. The men's downhill, the piste de résistance, you might say, takes place today, bringing together the against-the-clock racers who are the royalty of the winter sports circuit in frosty-breathed combat.

No shortage of glamour, with the American pair of bolshie Bode Miller and dashing Daron Rahlves poised to end the Austrian domination of the slopes that has been led by defending champion Fritz Strobl and Herman "The Herminator" Maier, who wrote one of the epic pages of Olympic history in Nagano eight years ago when he spectacularly crashed in the downhill but picked himself up, dusted off the snowflakes and won the Super-G. Then a near crip-pling motorcycle accident put him out of Salt Lake but he is back for what could be his last hurrah.

But the focus will be on the irascible Miller, the 24-year-old son of mountain hippies who is as much the mouth as the face of skiing in the US because of his outspokeness about the slushier side of the slopes.

The British challenge is led by Finlay Mickel, one of the tartan army who make up almost half of the entire 40-strong British contingent here. Indeed, it is just as well Scotland is not as reluctant to loan their nationals for these Winter Games as they are for the 2012 GB football team. After fellow Scot Alain Baxter, the slalomer whose half-brother Noel is also competing, was stripped of his bronze for a drugs offence four years ago, the 28-year-old Mickel has an outside chance of becoming the first Briton to win an Olympic skiing medal and keep it.

Mickel missed out on Salt Lake, breaking his tibia the week before,but subsequently he has swooshed into the world's top 20 and had an ideal confidence boost by clinching a place in the season-ending showcase World Cup finals. According to Britain's performance director, Mark Tilston: "He now looks the complete skier."

Mickel, from Edinburgh, is no Maier or Miller in terms of personality. Indeed,he is somewhat dour, though not altogether downbeat, usually preferring to let his skis do the talking. No over-stretched boasting from him. "Physically, I'm in very good condition,feeling fit and strong and ready for the challenge," he said yesterday in a brief break from training on the slopes of Sestriere. "Mentally, it's been a long January but I'm getting motivated because it's the Olympics and I missed out last time. I'm excited about the whole event. Martin Bell's eighth place in Calgary was our best-ever Olympic downhill result and a lot of people have been mentioning that. But I'm looking beyond that."

After his 10th place in the World Cup this year is a podium place realistic? "I would say it would take the day of all days, my best-ever performance, but I'm not ruling out the possibility in my mind. Everything just has to be quick on the day and we'll see what happens. I think it's quite a diverse track. There are some gliding sections, and generally the gliding areas are where I've been good in the past.

"I'm going to be treating the race in exactly the same way as I've treated all the other races this season. That's a step-by-step approach, building each day and then skiing confidently come race day. That's what's worked in the past. But if I have to take risks, I'll take them. I'll see what my emotions are on the day."

Emotion is a commodity oddly absent away from the mountains. "Passion lives here" is the slogan of the 20th Winter Games but it is barely evident in a snowless, spring-like Turin, where the banter in the bars off the crowded piazzas is of Juve rather the joys of schussing.

But at altitude the attitude is different. It is there that the passion will take off with the first plunge towards the finishing line three kilometres, 299 metres below. The daredevils of the downhill are far too coldly professional for skis to be crossed. But the surest bet down in the industrial city where Olympic wagers are officially welcomed for the first time is that for the next fortnight fingers will be.