Winter Olympics: Strobl streaks to upset in downhill

Favourite Eberharter upstaged by Austrian team-mate who claims gold on tough, high-speed Grizzly course

By Mike Rowbottom
Monday 11 February 2002 01:00

The grizzly failed to lay a paw on Stephan Eberharter here yesterday, but the man who has emerged from the shadow of fellow Austrian Hermann Maier this season to top the World Cup standings was mauled by another team mate, Fritz Strobl, whose time of 1min 39.13sec earned him the gold on this vertiginous beast of an Olympic downhill course.

Eberharter, who had moved into position to win what he hoped would be the first of three golds at the Games with a run of 1min 39.41sec, watched impassively as Strobl, next down, flashed into first position after hunching down the final steep drop of the event – the Rendezvous Face. For Eberharter, second so often to Maier before the double gold medallist from Nagano put himself out of the running when he crashed his motorbike last August, it was a meeting with a familiar fate. Three runs later, Norway's Lasse Kjus turned the 32-year-old World Cup leader's silver into bronze with a time of 1:39.35.

Eberharter, who has experienced lows as well as highs in his career having been dropped from the national team in the mid-90's, was phlegmatic in defeat. "I was prepared for that," he said. "The last turn up there I entered a rough section and I braked so hard. It wasn't my run, but I am close to the winner. There are plenty of races to collect medals – it's not over yet. I have not failed. I was successful in many races that did not have a medal. It happens."

It does indeed happen – and to Eberharter more often than others. His pre-race caution ("you can never say who will win at the Olympics") was fully justified on the brink of an event in which two of the last five winners have never won a downhill World Cup race since. But perhaps at least part of his reticence stemmed from the years when he finished a perpetual runner-up to Maier, something which happened 11 times in 13 World Cup races, and also in the super-G at the last Olympics.

Maier was not present to see yesterday's race – he had said before the Games that he was off to holiday on "an island with no TV". For Eberharter, however, there will be no hiding place until his next opportunity to earn the gold that eluded him by one place in Nagano in Saturday's super-G event.

Having won nine of his career 15 victories in this year's World Cup competition, including five downhills, Eberharter was clear favourite for gold. But the position of Strobl – a 29-year-old part-time policeman from Lienz – at his shoulder in the downhill standings testified to his potential to cause an upset.

Like Eberharter, Strobl has known what it is like to be dropped from the national squad, which happened to him after a series of back and knee injuries dimmed a career that had appeared brilliant in prospect when he joined the World Cup circuit as a 19-year-old.

But a 1996 super-G slalom victory in the European Cup, effectively the "B" tour, brought him back into the World Cup throng, where he underlined his return to top level racing by winning two downhill events in his first season.

In 1998 he finished 11th in the Nagano downhill, and indicated his promising form by winning two of this season's World Cup events – the super-G at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and the Bormio downhill. Two downhill victories at the classic course in Kitzbühel, in 1997 and 2000, also testified to his ability to master the most challenging courses. "I thought I had a chance," Strobl said. "I had a great feeling about the event this morning."

Now he has established himself as Austria's fourth Olympic downhill champion in the last eight Games, taking company with Franz Klammer, whose late rush to win on the home ground of Innsbruck in 1976 has passed into skiing legend;Leonhard Stock, who took gold at the following Games in Lake Placid; and Patrick Ortlieb, who won on a similarly steep course at Albertville in 1992.

Among Eberharter's interests is accordion-playing. Unless his Olympic fortunes look up, he will soon be playing a sad song.

After the high winds and snow which had postponed Friday's K90 qualifying, the weather relented in time for alpine skiing's blue riband event, with the sun dazzling down on to the pine-lined Snowbasin course. The grandstand offered its expected cosmopolitan spectacle, with red-and-white Austrian flags predominating and cowbells sounding.

The signs on display included one reading as well "Men of Madness", a reference, presumably, to the perilous course designed by Switzerland's 1972 Olympic downhill champion, Bernhard Russi, and named after a particularly large bear which once roamed these slopes. Racers reached 75mph within the first 10 seconds, and speeds approaching 85mph on the final 74 per cent drop.

France's Pierre-Emmanuel Dalcin was the man who found himself in most obvious trouble, but recovered himself remarkably to claim 10th place on just one ski. The only faller, however, was one of the fore-runners sent down before the race to test the course.

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