Winter Olympics / Lillehammer '94: Girardelli's assault on summit of ski architecture: Bernhard Russi's downhill course promises an exhilarating start to the Games. Bill Scott reports from Lillehammer

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The Independent Online
WORLD CUP racers yesterday put the stamp of approval on the latest creation of the master course designer, Bernhard Russi, during the second training run for Sunday's Olympic men's downhill. Luc Alphand, of France, produced the best time on the Olympiabakken piste, 1min 44.75sec. He headed Pietro Vitalini, of Italy, with 1:44.88 and the Olympic champion Patrick Ortlieb, of Austria, who finished the day with 1:45.06.

The downhill, the blue riband competition for Alpine racers and a major draw card for television, will get the Games off on a high note less than 24 hours after this afternoon's opening ceremony.

For the third consecutive Games, men will be testing themselves on a piste designed by Russi, Switzerland's 1972 Olympic gold medallist whose post-race career has led him to the summit of what might be termed 'ski architecture'.

His particular skill is wringing the most challenges out of any given mountain. Russi has put his stamp on downhill tracks at most of the major international events of the past decade, including the Face Bellevarde at Val d'Isere, France. On the spectacularly challenging terrain of Val d'Isere, he produced a test of turning ability which threw up Ortlieb as a surprise winner two years ago ahead of Franck Piccard, of France, and Gunther Mader, of Austria. Russi also worked on the 1988 Calgary track.

The Kvitfjell piste stretches for 3.03 kilometres with a vertical drop of 838 metres. Those specifications could not be termed very challenging for experienced World Cup downhill daredevils like Ortlieb and company, but they are tough enough to make Olympians from non-Alpine nations take serious notice. 'This is the best course of the past three Olympics,' the American A J Kitt said. 'Russi finally got his act together.'

One of the trademark sections of the track will be a jump in the middle section named after the designer, whose handiwork should prove to be a perfect test for many of the top names. It got good reviews yesterday from competitors, who raced here a year ago in a pre-Olympic World Cup event. 'I like the jump,' said Marc Girardelli, the five-time World Cup winner who skies for Luxembourg. 'The Russi jump is not the biggest we've ever seen, but it launches you for a good 70 metres.'

The 30-year-old said the track's very technical parts gave him a decent chance of victory and a first Olympic gold in the premier discipline of the sport. Because of the variety and frequency of the turns, racers have been testing shorter than normal skis stretching around 215 centimetres as opposed to the more normal 222cm usually used on tracks like Wengen, in Switzerland, which feature long gliding sections where holding a smooth tuck is critical.

Ortlieb, currently the man to beat, also praised the track. 'It's very safe and full of some good turns,' he said after training in bitter temperatures of around -10C. 'The hill is in Scandinavia, so it's a little short, but I like the track and I like my chances here.'

Russi could not resist a few bows of his own. 'I don't think that the track is any slower than last year,' the designer said. 'I would not change a thing, even if I could. It's exactly the way that I wanted it to be.'

Much like a master chef, Russi will get the chance to watch his guests indulge tomorrow.

Training times, Sporting Digest, page 25