Skiing: Bell claims higher ground: Ortlieb tames the Hahnenkamm but British flag flies high in ultimate challenge

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A COUPLE of Union Jacks were being proudly displayed at the finishing line here yesterday, an incongruous-looking sight among the flags of Austria, Switzerland and, significantly, Norway that decorated the most celebrated ski run in the world.

Locals might have questioned their right to such a prominent position, but when Graham Bell, the 28-year-old Briton, came flying past them to take 12th place in the Hahnenkamm - 1.67 seconds behind the winner, Patrick Ortlieb of Austria - even the man on the tannoy could not hide his excitement.

It was that voice, as Bell got off to a terrific start and sustained it through a middle section made even more terrifying than usual by patches of mist, that told him he might be on to something. The brother of the more famous Martin - a disappointing 51st - said: 'For the first time ever I could hear the commentary. When he starts shouting you know you could get a good result.'

It turned out to be rather better than that. Not Graham Bell's highest ever World Cup finish - he has a 10th at Leukerbad in Switzerland and an 11th at Val Gardena - but in his own view his best run ever. Such is the esteem in which this race is held. 'It's the ultimate challenge,' Bell said, 'maybe even more than the Olympics. The guy that wins here shows he's got what it takes.'

Bell's run came 10 years after his first appearance here. As an 18-year-old he got through two training runs before smashing up his hand and having to withdraw. Since then the Kitzbuhel part of his career has been marked by a series of crashes, injuries and low finishes - all forgotten in the wake of this performance.

We knew Ortlieb had what it takes at Albertville two years ago when his downhill gold was one of the surprises of the Winter Olympics. But it was clear from him too that there isn't much to choose between these achievements. 'I don't want to compare this with the Olympics,' he said. 'But winning at Kitzbuhel is something special.'

Skiing is going through one of those 'where have all the characters gone?' phases that seems to afflict all sports from time to time. And unless you are an Austrian, the undemonstrative Ortlieb, son of a farmer, will not be doing much to alleviate the situation.

Not that this Hahnenkamm was short on drama; a supreme test of courage like this one could hardly fail to be. Tension had been building up even more than usual, with the possibility, for the second year running, that it might not even go ahead. Heavy rain ruled out the third day of practice on Friday, and by yesterday morning it had turned to snow, and visibility was still very poor.

The cancellation, widely dreaded until within an hour of the start, would have been a disaster for Kitzbuhel. Financially, of course, for this is when the town makes its big killing, charging spectators 140 schillings (pounds 8) for the privilege of standing on the mountain as the skiers go by.

But there was also the matter of pride, which runs very deep in this sport. The Hahnenkamm marks the high point of Austrian-Swiss skiing rivalry, while sections of the German press had stirred things up by criticising the Austrians for allowing the course to deteriorate into a possibly unskiable condition. Quite what the Austrians were supposed to do about Friday's rain is not clear.

At last the snow eased, and thousands of pairs of eyes strained to see up the mountain. The Italian Peter Runggaldier was the first under 2min 2sec, but he was soon displaced at the top by one of Norway's great hopes for home glory in next month's Winter Games, Atle Skaardal. Two Swiss, Daniel Mahrer and William Besse, each took their turn in first place before the Austrian-born Luxembourger, Marc Girardelli, leapt out of the hut.

Girardelli flung himself down the course, at one point a horizontal figure supporting himself on his knuckles as he took the first big right-hand bend heading into the Steilhang. The man didn't worry about that as he hurtled on to clock the best time thus far of 2:00.59.

Girardelli, the 18th skier down, looked to have it in the bag. Rivals came and went, among them Austria's veteran Helmut Hoeflehner, who took a fearful tumble when he failed to land a jump, and had his face rubbed in the snow at 60mph. He won't be shaving for a few days, but was otherwise unscathed.

Then came Ortlieb - a clean, precise run with all of Austria cheering him on to 2:00.12 - almost half a second ahead of the rest of the field. Ortlieb was in a league of his own, but Graham Bell could hold his head high in the group that followed him.

(Photograph omitted)