Austrian men have tough act to follow
ST. ANTON, Austria (AP) -- After Austria's women managed to clinch their first gold medal of the World Championship, sweeping the podium in the downhill, Hermann Maier and the rest of the nation's men are under increasing pressure to match them in their event following a string of disappointing results.
Having once again taken the World Cup circuit by storm this season, soaring to the top of the World Cup overall rankings, Maier is carrying the bulk of responsibility to restore the men's pride in Wednesday's downhill.
The Herminator is flanked by four stouthearted teammates who made it through the grueling qualification for St. Anton: downhill World Cup leader Stephan Eberharter, Fritz Strobl, Hannes Trinkl and Werner Franz.
Together, the quintet swept all but one downhill victory this season. Alessandro Fattori won the other, leading an Italian sweep of the podium in Val d'Isere, France, in December in similar soft snow conditions.
The Austrians posted the top three times in final training Tuesday, with Franz in the lead. Strobl was second with Maier crossing third.
The winner of the super-G title last week, American Daron Rahlves continued to apply pressure, posting the fourth-fastest time ahead of Eberharter. It will likely remain up to the American to prevent an Austrian sweep of the podium. Switzerland's Silvano Beltrametti, who finished runnerup at the season-opening downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta, was sixth in training and another skier to watch out for.
Silver medalist at the worlds in Vail two years ago, Norway's Lasse Kjus was 10th. The veteran has bronchitis and there are questions concerning his fitness. The top-10 skiers in training were all within a second of Franz.
If they are the favorites heading into the event, holding the top four places in the World Cup downhill rankings, the Austrian men are by no means a lock-in.
Burdened by the weight of the nation's expectations and worn down by an interminable selections process for the championship, the powerful Austrian team has not yet stood for its national anthem.
Rahlves snatched the super-G gold ahead of Eberharter, dropping Maier to a mortifying third in what is considered his strongest event.
Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt clinched his third consecutive combined title, edging Austria's Mario Matt for gold.
In the downhill, the fresh snow conditions and a shorter course could easily shake up the pecking order.
In the combined downhill, several skiers crashed out after hitting ruts in the soft, choppy snow, including American Bode Miller, whose championship campaign came to an abrupt end when he injured his knee.
"The course has now become even more difficult because there are so many bumps," Franz said. "The warmer it is, the more it depends on luck. You can ski perfectly here but hit a bump and it's all over."
Organizers have been unable to repair the entire downhill course, which was damaged by high winds and heavy snowfalls over the weekend. As a result, the downhill will start midway between the original and the combination downhill start. The race time for the winner should be about 1 minute, 40 seconds.
Aamodt, who finished third in the downhill at the last worlds in Vail, believes the shorter course will play against the Austrians. Maier, in particular, is especially strong over long distances, his stamina allowing him to excel at the bottom of the course, while the other skiers tend to fade.
"The Austrians are very strong but if they start further down, I think others can win as well," Aamodt said.