- Alpine Skiing
Pride restored as Austria finds new Alpine king of speed
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia -- Shamed four years ago after failing to deliver an Olympic medal of any color, the Austrian men's ski team made a flying start to the Sochi Games when young gun Matthias Mayer blasted down the Rosa Khutor course to win the downhill on Sunday.
Those bitter Vancouver memories were erased in the two minutes, six seconds it took the 23-year-old to reach the bottom and claim Austria's first men's downhill Olympic gold since Fritz Strobl set the cowbells ringing in 2002.
Criticism had rained down on the underachieving men's team in 2010 when they failed to win a medal for the first time at an Olympics since 1936.
It was akin to the Brazilian national soccer team failing to win a match at the World Cup.
Mayer's slender win -- by 0.06 seconds over Italy's Christof Innerhofer -- was even more remarkable given that his best results on the World Cup were two second place finishes in super-G.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Sochi Olympics: Men's downhill
Mayer's gold means he has gone one better than his father Helmut, won the 1988 super-G silver.
Austrian men's head coach Matthias Berthold said Hannes Reichelt's victory in the downhill at Kitzbuehel last month had eased the pressure on the ski-mad nation going into Sochi after no wins in World Cup speed events until then.
"For the Austrian ski team this is huge," Berthold told reporters. "We've had a very strong season so far but we weren't able to get that first number on the board until Kitzbuehel.
"We had a lot of criticism going on but we are a team always who stick together and stay calm."
Berthold said that last year at the worlds in Schladming Austria were unlucky with two fourth places in the first two events, but that Marcel Hirscher won the slalom to pull them out of trouble.
"Now we've done it on the first day and it will give the whole team a lot of confidence."
Embedded owg_slideshow: Spotlight: Matthias Mayer
Mayer's medal was Austria's 106th in Alpine skiing at the Winter Olympics, the most by any country, and Berthold said he was confident more would follow in the next two weeks.
"I'm pretty sure we have the momentum now but we need to keep going," he said.
With Reichelt out with a spinal problem the Austrian fans scattered around the stands in the finish might have expected experienced racers like Georg Streitberger and Klaus Kroell to be the best hope of downhill medals.
But it was the new generation of Mayer and 24-year-old Max Franz (ninth) who showed the way.
Mayer became the youngest Olympic downhill champion since fellow Austrian Leonard Stock won gold in Lake Placid in 1980, aged 21.
"I was very relaxed today," Mayer said. "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."
Berthold said he had also been confident Mayer could deliver, although he had been worried during the race.
"We thought he could do it, I was convinced he could get on the podium but then on his run I didn't think the upper part was actually that great, he did that better in training," he said.
"Today he wasn't that fast but he was able to put it together in the lower part.
"Maybe the younger guys are just going for it whereas the older guys are thinking this may be last Olympics and they may hesitate a bit during the run."
Whether or not Mayer's career goes on to scale the peaks of Austrian greats Franz Klammer or Hermann Maier remains to be seen, but for now at least he has restored pride in a nation that reveres the kings of the mountains.
Best of Sochi