Austrians Compete Among Themselves
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 1998; Page D1
HAKUBA, Japan, Feb. 6 Weighed down by high expectations in the Olympic Alpine events, some Austrian ski team members were in decidedly poor spirits today, just 48 hours before Sunday's prestigious downhill event.
Austria's Hermann Maier, favored to win a medal in three races, said the Happo'one downhill course doesn't suit him one bit it's too easy. He and two teammates have secured spots in the downhill. Five teammates, meanwhile, are fighting for their nation's last Olympic spot, worried they won't make the cut for the downhill though all are among the best skiers in the world.
"I am slow," Austrian Werner Franz said somberly despite finishing in fifth place in today's trial run, exactly 0.49 seconds out of first but not good enough to secure a berth on the team. "It's crap for me. I didn't qualify."
The Americans, who have learned to celebrate top 10 finishes, seem tired of the grumbling from the red and white-jacketed Austrians, the clear-cut kings of the international hills. As the Austrians settle the agonizing issue of which brilliant cards they will lay on the table for Sunday's downhill (8:15 p.m. EST Saturday), the U.S. skiers none of whom is favored for a medal roll their eyes at the Austrians' complaints.
"It's talk," said U.S. rookie Jason Rosener, who skied to a U.S.-best 10th-place finish in today's trial run. "It's the Austrians. The Austrians never perform well at the Olympics. They are always looking for something to complain about. . . . I don't pay attention. I'm sick of it."
The Austrians, indeed, have struggled in the last two Winter Olympics while the U.S. men overachieved dramatically in 1994 when Tommy Moe won the gold in the downhill and silver in the Super-G.
The U.S. skiers like to say they play for keeps at the Winter Games. They theorize that the Austrians are so concerned about accruing World Cup points that they treat the Olympics like any other competition. In the last two Winter Olympics, the Austrian men managed two golds and three bronze medals in Alpine, low by that nation's standards.
Moe, who hasn't broken into the top 20 in a trial run here, has remarked that all of the Europeans gripe too much when they leave their home continent. For them, Moe said this week, "one week in Japan is three weeks too long."
Today, the only happy Austrians seemed to be Andreas Schifferer, who pre-qualified for a downhill spot, and Hannes Trinkl, who earned a place with his No. 2 finish in today's trial. After the trial, Trinkl looked so elated an observer might have thought he had been awarded a gold medal early.
Maier also was given a bye onto the downhill team, but he seems uncomfortable with this newly laid course.
"Today, I had a lot of problems," Maier said. "I was not so fast today. I hope I'm faster tomorrow and Sunday. . . . It's flat here. A lot of skiers can win here in the downhill. It's not so technical, so that's a little bit of a problem."
Maier, 25, certainly has proven his ability to overcome. After being rejected by a private ski school in his home town of Flachau at age 15 because he was too small (about 5 feet 3 at the time) and had bad knees, Maier landed a job as a bricklayer. In his spare time, he continued training. It wasn't until 1996, when he won a major European championship, that his countrymen began taking him seriously.
Maier, now about 5-11, wasn't even competing on the World Cup circuit three years ago-he was still laying bricks.
"I was not unhappy, but I looked at all the races and tried everything I could to come back," Maier said. "Now, here I am."
With a huge lead in the World Cup standings, he is expected to become the first Austrian in 28 years to win the overall World Cup title.
For the Austrian team, every race offers a competition inside the real competition: a fight for precious starting spots in the pre-race trials. The nation's last available downhill position will be given to the highest Austrian finisher in Saturday's trial.
"It's very hard," said Austrian Stefan Eberharter, gesturing to the scoreboard at the foot of Happo'one.
"Look at the board. I'm third and I'm not qualified because you have Trinkl in second. . . . Everyone skis perfect. You need a perfect run."
Trinkl said he was nervous before today's run but expected the actual Olympic race to be easier.
"For us," Trinkl said about the Olympic events, "it's better, because a lot of the Austrian guys are not on the start [list]. For us, it's easier."
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