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Skiing: Maier prepared to face `Birds of Prey'

THE PISTE is called "The Birds of Prey" but Hermann Maier has no intention of doing any flying in the World Championship downhill at Beaver Creek, Colorado. A year ago, the Austrian memorably hurtled through the air to disaster at the Nagano Winter Olympics but came back to win two golds.

He would happily settle for less excitement in today's World Championship downhill providing his endeavours result in a gold medal.

Maier was cautious coming into the championships, saying more experienced downhill skiers, such as Norway's Lasse Kjus, would have an advantage on the demanding piste. However, after sharing the gold medal with Kjus in Tuesday's championship-opening super-G, Maier feels he is relaxed enough to deliver a top performance in the blue riband race.

"There was a lot of pressure on me as everyone expected me to win the super-G," he said. "A heavy weight was lifted off my shoulders, now I can enjoy myself here."

Yet the Austrian warned that the difficulty of the course should not be underestimated and that Kjus, the World Cup downhill leader, was the favourite. "I like the slope and can do well here, but Kjus will be a tough rival," said Maier, who has won only a single World Cup downhill this season while Kjus has clinched four.

Kjus, who has had a recurring sinus infection during the northern winter, said he will not be going flat out. "Downhill racing is dangerous and I, therefore, never take every risk. This is where the Austrians may have an advantage over me," said Kjus, the downhill silver medallist at both the 1997 World Championships and 1998 Olympics. "But Maier and I are not the only ones who can win here. There are a lot of other Austrians and [Norwegian team-mate Kjetil Andre] Aamodt. The biggest challenge for Aamodt and myself is to beat the Austrians."

The Italian Kristian Ghedina, winner of the second World Cup downhill at Val Gardena in December and silver and bronze downhill medallist at the last two world championships, was surprised with his strong performance in training runs here. "Last year I was negative about this course because it's too technical and then I won the race. This is not the type of downhill that I enjoy racing," he said.