- Alpine Skiing
Matthias Mayer a winner in the Austrian Olympic tradition
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia -- Leonhard Stock, Patrick Ortlieb, Matthias Mayer - Alpine skiing's latest Olympic men's downhill champion joined a fine line of Austrians who have come out of the shadows on the greatest stage of all.
Son of 1988 super-G silver medalist Helmut Mayer, the 23-year-old may have Olympic blood coursing through his veins but has yet to win on the World Cup circuit or finish higher than fifth in downhill.
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The youngest of four Austrians competing in Sunday's showcase race, Mayer had been tipped for great things by his coaches and stood out in training with the fastest time on Friday.
But until last month it was compatriot Hannes Reichelt - absent from Sochi due to injury - who was considered the Austrian most likely to end a 12-year-wait for men's downhill Olympic gold after winning in Kitzbuehel.
"I thought maybe in a few years I could dream of this sort of achievement," said Mayer after laying down a time that the far more experienced favorites following him down the slope could not match.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Sochi Olympics: Men's downhill
"I woke up this morning and I knew that I could win this race. I was smiling the whole day, all throughout the inspection. It was my day today."
And therein, perhaps, lies the secret.
In a country as ski-crazy as Austria, with saturation coverage in the media of a team that is always expected to win, the pressure can be a heavy burden on those with a reputation to live up to.
Older men, such as Klaus Kroell and Georg Streitberger who are both comfortably the wrong side of 30, would have entered the start hut knowing it might be their last chance to win a downhill medal.
Mayer, with his future ahead of him and still flying underneath the radar even if the chatter has been growing steadily, had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
"Maybe the younger guys are just going for it whereas the older ones are thinking this may be my last Olympics and they maybe hesitate a bit during the run," said Austrian men's head coach Matthias Berthold.
"It's a balance between attacking and avoiding mistakes."
The proof is also in the past. A string of Austrian favorites have flopped at previous Olympics while lesser-known names have stepped up to be counted.
Fritz Strobl won the gold in Salt Lake City, stepping up for what was the first title of his career. But he already had a fistful of downhill wins to his credit by then.
Ortlieb, the winner in Albertville in 1992, had been compared to a 'cement truck with power steering' and - fittingly enough - that downhill gold was the first concrete achievement in a career that saw him go on to be a World Cup winner.
Before him, Stock sped to glory in the 1980 Lake Placid Games after arriving in the United States as a mere alternate - one of the extras not expected to figure on race day but brought along just in case.
Stock made himself an obvious choice by setting the fastest times in two of the three practice sessions.
In less than two days he went from being a nobody, a man without a win to his credit, to champion. It took him nine more years to win again.
Mayer, more of a super-G specialist than outright downhiller, is unlikely to have to wait long for further success but even if Sunday proves to be his finest hour, he is in good company there as well.
American Tommy Moe won the downhill in 1994 and never stood on top of the podium again in the World Cup.
Nor did Bill Johnson, the U.S. skier who was the winner in Sarajevo in 1984.
Frenchman Jean-Luc Cretier triumphed in 1998 after 11 empty years on the World Cup circuit and in his fourth Games at the age of 31.
The favorite that year was Austrian Hermann Maier - the 'Herminator' who would be back for gold in the super-G after crashing in the downhill he was supposed to win.
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