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Skiing: Kjus chases famous five

LASSE KJUS, the Norwegian who has been an irresistible force on the skiing circuit this winter, goes for his fifth medal from five starts when he races in the slalom in the World Championships in Vail, Colorado, today.

The bearded, balding Norwegian has won two gold and two silver medals here, taking his second gold in Friday's giant slalom with a barnstorming run to see off the challenge of the unknown Marco Buechel of Lichtenstein, who had threatened to produce the surprise of the championships so far when he established a sizeable lead on the first leg. In a thrilling climax, Kjus just edged ahead by a mere 0.05sec.

In capturing his fourth medal, Kjus matched the record of the great Swiss champion Pirmin Zurbriggen in 1987. Like Zurbriggen in Crans- Montana, Kjus won the giant slalom and super-G and finished second in the downhill and combined.

Kjus, the 1996 World Cup overall champion who also leads this season's overall standings, trailed Buechel by 0.25sec and had to work hard to make up the deficit. Buechel was faster than early in his second heat, but lost fractions of seconds in the middle and bottom sections. He still produced the second-fastest second-leg run, but lost out by an agonising margin to a delighted Kjus. "This is amazing, unbelievable," he said. "This is my greatest victory ever, I think. I enjoy giant slalom the most. That's where I think the competition is the hardest."

Buechel said he was nervous between runs "but I didn't freak out. This was brand new for me. I had never been in the top three after the first run. I knew the other guys were really fast."

The pre-race favourite, Switzerland's Michael Von Gruenigen, the leader of the World Cup giant slalom standings and the defending world champion, blew his chance in the first leg, in which he finished only ninth. And it was a rare poor day for the Austrians, who have dominated here. Christian Mayer was Austria's top finisher, in eighth place.

Despite being shut out, Austria retained their lead in the medals table, with 12. Norway have seven.

Hermann Maier, of Austria, Kjus' greatest rival in the battle for domination of the sport, was seeking his third gold medal in these championships in the giant slalom, but he was one of three medal contenders who failed to finish the second run.

He and Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt both lost edges on Pepi's Face, the final steep slope before the finish. The Austrian rookie Benjamin Raich lost an edge and missed a gate early in the run.

Stephan Eberharter of Austria, another favourite, went skiing into soft snow and skidded wide of a gate, failing to finish the first run.