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Cretier Surprise Winner in Treacherous Downhill

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 1998; Page C1




 Italy's Luca Cattaneo flew off the course at the same turn that knocked out the favorite, Austria's Hermann Maier. Cattaneo remained down for about 15 minutes with a knee injury and was finally airlifted to a hospital.
(Luca Bruno/AP)
HAKUBA, Japan, Feb. 13 (Friday) — On a course that proved treacherous because of warm weather that softened the snow, Frenchman Jean-Luc Cretier skied a safe, smart race and found himself the surprise winner in the men's downhill on Happo'one today, a race twice delayed by unfavorable weather.

Cretier became the first Frenchman since Jean-Claude Killy in 1968 to win the Olympic downhill by finishing in 1 minute 50.11 seconds, 0.40 seconds ahead of Norway's Lasse Kjus. Cretier also defeated the highly favored Austrian contingent, which managed only a bronze medal from Hannes Trinkl — considered no better than the third-best Austrian competing today.

Austria's Hermann Maier, who is leading the overall World Cup standings, took a horrific fall that sent him tumbling and flying about 150 yards. He plowed through two soft fences before sliding to a stop. Despite the terrible nature of the crash, he walked off the course. He suffered hip and shoulder injuries and a bad headache and did not compete in the men's combined downhill, which was won later today on the same course by Mario Reiter of Austria. Kjus took the silver and Christian Mayer of Austria won the bronze.

Another racer, Italy's Luca Cattaneo, flew off the course on the same turn that felled Maier. He remained down for about 15 minutes with what appeared to be an injury to his left knee and was airlifted from the course and taken to a hospital via helicopter.

In all, 15 skiers did not finish the course.

For the United States, Kyle Rasmussen finished ninth-his best downhill performance of the season-and 1994 champion Tommy Moe was 12th.

"I had fun defending my gold medal," Moe said. "But now Cretier is the man and good for him. I'd rather have a Frenchman win than an Austrian any day."

Before today, Cretier, 31, had never won a major downhill race. In fact, in his 13-year career with the French ski team, he had never won a race in any discipline. His best finishes were two second places in World Cup races this season-the best of his career-and one second place in 1994.

At the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Cretier finished 24th in the downhill. In 1992 in Albertville, he finished fourth in the combined and 25th in the super giant slalom.

Cretier skied cautiously through the turn that felled Maier and Cattaneo and gave other racers trouble. Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt lost control momentarily at around that point, and never recovered, finishing 13th. Cretier entered the turn nearly standing up, rather than with his body low, trying to make a sharper cut.

"I was lucky to get through [that spot]," said Cretier, who added that the course was changed from the practice runs at that bend and that skiers had to improvise while hurtling down the mountain. "I hope [Maier] did not suffer any injury, but this is part of the downhill race."

Austrian Andreas Schifferer, considered the favorite to win because he leads the World Cup standings in the downhill, skied a poor race and finished in seventh place, just behind Italy's Kristian Ghedina.

"The people of Austria will be disappointed," said Karl Schranz, who in 1970 became the last Austrian ski racer to win the overall World Cup title.

The race was postponed last Sunday because of too much snow and fog. It was postponed again Thursday because of icy rain and poor visibility. Though today's weather was glorious, with a cloudless sky and warm sunshine, the race was delayed 45 minutes because of-what else?-weather.

Heavy winds gusting over one of the course's three jumps posed a temporary problem that was solved with shovels. To reduce the danger of the gusts, ski officials hastily scraped snow off the top of the jump to lower its altitude.

Many skiers seem to respect Cretier for the long, arduous road he has taken to this achievement. The U.S. skiers, in contrast, talk disdainfully about the powerful Austrians, who have earned a reputation for complaining frequently.

"[Cretier] has been skiing well all year, especially in the last month," Rasmussen said. "It was just a matter of time before he won a race. There was a lot of pressure on the Austrians; a lot of people expected them to win. ... I'm kind of glad the Austrians didn't win here."

In December 1995, Cretier fractured his left ankle while playing volleyball in Val d'Isere, France. He underwent surgery the following spring, and it wasn't until this fall that he began skiing at a top level again.

"He's been on the verge all year," said American skier AJ Kitt, who did not finish today. "It's good to see that the old guys still have it."

The fourth to race, Maier lost control in the early turn and sailed off the course with his skis spread wide. He landed on his side and flew through the protective fences, somersaulting several times. Remarkably, moments after rolling to a halt well off the course, he got up and walked away.

Maier took a huge lead in the World Cup standings this year with a skiing style that some consider reckless.

"He's been doing that all year and getting away with it," Rasmussen said. "It was just a matter of time before something like that happened."

"Everybody had a problem up there except Cretier," Shranz said. "He didn't take the risks and he won. That's very smart. ... Cretier did the right thing. Usually you can't win a race like that."

Cretier crashed on this course last week during the second training run. Apparently, he learned something from his fall.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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