Winter Olympics / Lillehammer '94: Old stager seeks a golden dawn: Bill Scott finds the veteran Marc Girardelli in confident mood for today's downhill race

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CALL it maturity. Call it mellowing. For whatever reason, Marc Girardelli is finally pleased with an Olympic downhill course.

It has been a long time since the 30-year-old has appeared satisfied at a major ski racing event. Since he first ran headlong into the sport's international bureaucracy as a 20-year-old and found himself without a ticket to the Sarajevo Games - there was the niggling question of which nation could actually claim him as a citizen - the Austrian who skis under Luxembourg's flag of convenience has been something less than a fan of the two traditional big events of winter sport, the Olympics and the World Championships.

Girardelli, coached by his demanding and gruff father, Helmut, is the sum total of Luxembourg's highly successful one-man squad. Team Girardelli trains alone and has done ever since the racer was a teenager and Helmut yanked him of out what he considered a sub-standard junior training programme in their native Austria. By the time the younger Girardelli made his World Cup debut at age the age of 16 in December, 1979 - he placed 46th in a giant slalom won by legendary Swede Ingemar Stenmark - Helmut was fully and firmly in charge of his son's development. The father's emphasis was on winning the week-in week-out World Cup races, not glittering at the occasional big events.

Up until now, most of Girardelli's career results have reflected this attitude. The skier's Olympic best was a pair of silver medals in 1992 at Albertville in the giant slalom and the super-giant. At the World Championships, the bespectacled racer's showings have been relatively modest - slalom silver in 1993 at Morioka, Japan, and slalom gold in 1991 at Saalbach, Austria (his only title at the bi-annual worlds).

Contrast that to the record five World Cup crystal globes that Girardelli has earned and his preference becomes evident. 'The Olympics seem like just another World Cup race to me,' Girardelli said. 'It may be the Olympics, but it has the same feeling for me as the World Cup. That's why I have no pressure on me.'

But a slight change of attitude may be lingering in the frigid air of Kvitfjell, venue for the blue-riband men's event, highlight of the opening weekend of the Games. Girardelli, whose speed racing form this World Cup season has been steadily improving, has admitted that he's quite at home on the 3.03km piste at this alpine venue, 35km from the tiny Olympic town of Lillehammer.

'The turns are very icy and there is no chance for recovery after an error,' Girardelli added. 'It's a good course for everyone. It's difficult, icy in the upper part and soft in the lower parts. That makes preparation for the race a real challenge.'

Girardelli, who was 12th fastest in the final practice yesterday, will be facing strong competition for gold today, including defending Olympic champion Patrick Ortlieb of Austria, his teammates Armin Assinger and Hannes Trinkl, the Americans Tommy Moe and A J Kitt and the Swiss, featuring hard-man Dani Mahrer and William Besse. Norway's hopes rest on the World Cup leader, Kjetil Aamodt, who was second in practice yesterday, just 0.12sec behind the Italian Pietro Vitalini.

Ortlieb also likes what he sees at Kitvjell. 'This is a good track,' said the Austrian. 'It's very safe, though the piste might be just a bit short. It has good turns and is very technical. That's what I like. I think that I can do well here.'

Ortlieb is full of confidence and has one important factor in his favour. When he lines up at the starting gate, he'll be the only man in the field of more than 80 who has ever won the Olympic gold. 'I have no pressure on me at all,' Ortlieb said.

In contrast, British hopes are at a more modest pitch. Martin Bell was 34th yesterday, but his brother Graham did not train, resting the knee he injured in practice on Friday. On Thursday, the brothers had both placed in the 20s.

Martin Bell's eighth place at the Calgary Games six years ago was the best downhill finish in British men's Olympic ski history. Mike Jardine, the British team spokesman said that the pair were hoping to 'attack the course full-out on race day. Psychologically, good training times are very important.'

Today's race will be held exactly two weeks since the death of Austrian woman's racer Ulrike Maier at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. At last winter's pre-Olympic race, women World Cup skiers expressed their dissatisfaction with the course at Hafjell, which they considered too easy. The venue was reluctantly changed to a shorter version of the Kvitfjell men's run. But in the light of the Maier tragedy and given the benefit of hindsight, it might have been better had the change not been made.

Meanwhile, there would appear to be no problem with the weather at these Games. The Lillehammer region, two hours' drive north of Oslo, has been hit by its highest snowfall since the early 1950s. Around 135cm of snow lies on the ground, more than enough to ensure that all Olympic events will be held as scheduled. Temperatures plunged as low as -15C last week, and one forecast is suggesting much colder readings for today's downhill.

(Photograph omitted)