Winter Olympics: Beware the Herminator

Austria's new folk hero threatens to sweep all before him as America's finest returns to her brilliant best; Andrew Longmore discovers that the long search for Klammer's successor may be over
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THE Austrians have waited an eternity for another Franz Klammer. The wait might be over. The domination of alpine skiing by Hermann Maier this season has brought heady comparisons with the great Austrian. In 1975, Klammer won eight out of nine downhill races in the World Cup. The following year, in Innsbruck, he started 15th and snatched Olympic gold with a run of breathtaking athleticism. "I thought I would crash all the way," Klammer said afterwards.

The conspiracy theories which surfaced in Kitzbuhel last weekend were a testimony to Maier's pursuit of the same do-or-die creed. The Austrian coaches, it was widely believed, had weighed up the contest between The Herminator and the Hahnenkamm mountain and sensed danger. With Maier poised to become the first Austrian since Karl Schranz in 1970 to win the overall World Cup title, quite apart from Olympic gold, the risk of disaster was too great. Maier developed sore shins. The Austrians - and Maier himself - felt thwarted of some good sport and inscribed the name of their new champion in snow letters 20 feet high. That the rest of the Austrian team fared badly only added lustre to Maier's rising star.

Victory in Garmisch in today's super-G - he was third in the downhill yesterday - could secure the coveted World Cup title for Maier. But that bare detail tells only some of the story. In giant slalom and downhill, the bricklayer from Flachau has been almost invincible. On the Lauberhorn in Wengen last month, Maier recorded his eighth World Cup victory of the season and his fifth in succession. It would have been nine had he not been disqualified for taking his skis off before the regulation red line after a giant slalom in Val d'Isere. The weekend before Kitzbuhel, in his first competitive slalom for five years, he finished 10th. If his confidence stays high to Nagano, a quartet of gold medals - downhill, Super-G, giant slalom and combined - is not beyond him.

"He's incredibly powerful and like Klammer he loves to take risks," Nick Fellows, former downhill racer and now Eurosport commentator, said. "If Alberto Tomba was a perfect star for the Eighties with his Ferraris and pretty women, Hermann is perfect for the Nineties. A down-to-earth bloke who loves his beer and wants to come and watch some English soccer."

Maier's appeal strays beyond his patent ordinariness. His rise to the top owes little to the ruthless system of streaming developed by the Austrian Ski Federation and everything to his own unorthodox will to win. Maier was kicked off his regional team at the age of 16 for being too weak, almost slipped away from skiing, completed a ski instructor's course while working as a bricklayer and playing football for Flachau FC and only truly emerged as a talent long after most of his contemporaries had fallen by the wayside. Among the tight-knit Austrians, the 25-year-old Maier is still an outsider; for a thousand ski resort hotshots once rejected by the system he is an inspirational working-class hero, the bricklayer turned champion who finished second on his debut in a World Cup Super-G wearing a second-hand skisuit.

"I remember him - as opposed to seeing him - the first time in Semmering at the Austrian championships," Werner Margreiter, head coach of the Austrian team, recalled. "He was last of 141 to ski and I waited till nearly dark to watch him. He finished 17th and skied really well on a very erratic course. He's only been with us two years, so I still don't know him as well as the others. He is a bit of a rebel."

Maier himself is undeterred, a little puzzled by the fuss. He finds the Austrian team, most of whom have been together for five years, a bit "serious", rather strict for the tastes of a daredevil mountain boy who was once banned for taking part in a pro race (first prize: pounds 750), likes to ride his motorbikes and whose concessions to status stretch only to ownership of a chinchilla and a BMW. On course, there are few concessions. "He's awesome," Fellows said. "So incredibly powerful. My one fear is that he will come a fearful cropper soon. He's on the edge all the time."

Looking at his four-square physique now, it is hard to believe that Maier's early career was hampered by a fragile frame and weak knees. The transformation is a tribute to the muscle-building powers of bricklaying and to Maier's own commitment to a distant dream. Maier passed his ski instructor's certificate, generally the passport to a secure future as a resort coach rather than a downhill racer. "Good ski instructor, slow racer" is a standard motto in the Austrian Federation. Wrong again. Not only did Maier have the power of a top-class downhiller, he had developed the clean technique required for the more precise disciplines of slalom. Technology has also played its part in the transformation. Maier has always followed the double ski technique perfected by Alberto Tomba - shifting weight from one ski to another rather than keeping both skis parallel - but his all-action style was ideally suited to the revolutionary new skis developed with wider tips and tails and an ability to carve tighter turns. Some dislike their lack of stability; for Maier they were ideal, rewarding courage and power as well as finesse.

"Technically, Hermann's strength is that he can combine gliding with skiing on a tight line," Margreiter said. "You have to ski very aggressively on those skis so they are perfect for him. But he is also very strong mentally. He is able to concentrate on the moment, and that's a talent you cannot teach."

By tonight, Maier might have confirmed his place in Austrian sporting history by winning the World Cup title. Then, says Margreiter, the pressure will be off for the Olympics where Austrian champions are ten a penny. Maier will probably not see it so clearly. The downhill is still the 1,500 metres of the Winter Olympics, an assurance of immortality and wealth for the victor, another step closer to comparison with Franz Klammer.