It's All Downhill for the Favorites

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Olympic downhill ski races are unkind to favorites. At Nagano in 1998, Jean-Luc Crétier took advantage of a spectacular crash by Austrian great

Hermann Maier to snatch gold. At Lillehammer in 1994, America's Tommy Moe grabbed gold over Norway's homegrown favorite, Kjetil Andre Aamodt. So it went at Snowbasin for Austria's season-dominating Stephan Eberharter. Almost predictably, he missed the gold.

Just as Eberharter, the World Cup champion, had set up a nearly half-second lead, his countryman Fritz Strobl posted a time .28 sec. faster. And then came Norway's Lasse Kjus, .06 sec. quicker. Strobl, a personable and humorous character who in the summer months is a policeman, skied a perfect race while Eberharter made a couple of small errors. As he took in the joy of winning, Strobl said afterward, "I'm not out to beat anyone when I'm skiing. When I ski, I just want to ski well." Eberharter hid his disappointment well. "Everyone was expecting me to win the gold medal," he said, "but I always said life can go a different way."

The different ways were very much in the minds of the French ski team, still recovering from the tragic death in a training accident last October of super-G world champion Régine Cavagnoud. Carole Montillet, a close friend of Cavagnoud's, said that it had been very difficult to come to Salt Lake City without their outstanding skier. "As a team," she said, "we wanted to dedicate this Olympics to Régine." And she did it in the best way possible, by taking the downhill gold.

Montillet, who has won only one World Cup race — and that in super-G — flew down the Wildflower course in a time of 1 min. 39.56 sec. to beat Italy's Isolde Kostner and the pre-race favorite, Renate Götschl from Austria. Götschl gracefully described Montillet as "one of the best skiers in the world." "I am very happy for her," she said. "She is a good girl." Montillet's success against two skiers who had proved themselves in international competition with nine world and World Cup championships between them was all the more surprising, since she had never won even a single major international competition. Maybe that's the answer: not winning lesser races could be the surefire formula for Olympic downhill golds.