Winter Olympics / Lillehammer '94: Ortlieb poised to take his place in history: Bill Scott on a downhill champion with a knack for upsetting authority

Click to follow
WHATEVER the outcome of the men's downhill tomorrow, Austria's Patrick Ortlieb is guaranteed to book at least a footnote in Olympic history.

With a win in what is arguably the premier event at the Games, the 26-year-old defending champion will establish himself as the longest-serving downhill title holder since his reign would extend at least until the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan. With anything less than the gold, conversely, Ortlieb will be remembered as the man who was champion in the event for the shortest time, two years instead of the normal four.

This unique situation is not of Ortlieb's making. When the International Olympic Committee switched the Winter and Summer Games on to separate four-year cycles, it was cold weather athletes who got the bonus - two Olympics just 24 months apart.

'Of course I am hoping to defend my medal,' Ortlieb said during the build-up to his event. 'For me it will be an easy race. Not physically, but mentally. I will be the only man at the starting gate who has the gold medal. For me that will be a huge confidence boost.'

Ortlieb got off to a good start during yesterday's second day of downhill training, clocking the third-best time of 1min 45.06 sec as Luc Alphand, of France, headed the session with 1:44.75.

The son of hotel-owning parents in the ski town of Lech, Ortlieb began his glittering World Cup race career in 1989, placing 30th overall in his first full season on the circuit. Yet he sped to victory at Albertville two years ago without having won a World Cup event.

After some frustration, his day finally arrived last December in Val Gardena, when he won the second event of a downhill double bill, firmly establishing his credentials once and for all. The big blond skier, whose English is as fluent as his native German, then solidified his position with the top placing four weeks ago at the demanding Hahnenkamm at Kitzbuhel. These wins confounded the bridesmaid's image he had earned via a hat-trick of downhill second places between 1988 and last winter.

Despite the somewhat stereotypical simple mountain-boy image of elite downhillers, Ortlieb , whose French-born father met his mother while working at her family's hotel in Lech, has never been reticent in voicing his opinions. His most recent pronouncement came this week, when he effectively said that a death - such as that of Ulrike Maier in Garmisch-Partenkirchen - was actually a way of increasing box-office interest in a dangerous sport. Quoted in an Austrian magazine, Ortlieb said that television viewers 'obviously wait for something like this. They want to have a coward. And sometimes the people need someone who dies so they have a hero.'

Ortlieb has been critical of the Swiss-based International Ski Federation, which rules the sport with an iron hand. He called Kitzbuhel - considered the toughest track in the world along with Wengen in Switzerland - 'a perfectly staged show' and put in a thinly disguised plea often voiced by racers. 'We have been demanding more money from the (ski) industry, but they say that we must be on television longer. In the two minutes of a race you have to offer something to the public.'

Ortlieb is quite satisfied with the Olympic piste of Olympiabakkan at Kvitfjell, 35 kilometres from Lillehammer. The 3.05km track features a vertical drop of 838m and is neither too demanding nor too easy. 'It's a safe track and a good one,' he said. 'I think that I have good chances here.'

Despite his No 1 status in one of skiing's most powerful teams, Ortlieb does not try to steal glory from his compatriots. The selection and distribution of race skis is an important point. Ortlieb, Hannes Trinkl and Armin Assinger all race on Head.

Instead of preparing skis individually for each racer - and obviously favouring Ortlieb - technicians prepare three sets of skis in the best possible way. They are then distributed at random. But since skis are individual beasts one pair can be inherently quicker than the rest. 'We never know who has the fastest pair,' Ortlieb said. 'We're all in this together and we're not really rivals in this sense.'

That sentiment may be fine in theory, but in practice the lure of a second Olympic medal might just be the incentive that Ortlieb needs to give that little bit extra on race day.

(Photograph omitted)