Is Franz Klammer just going through the motions?

The crowds are still there, adoring crowds that gather at the finish line after the glamorous downhill runs. They push to the front for a look at Franzie, the man-child who won their hearts three years ago.

It matters not that he was 10th, 20th or even worse this time down the mountain.

At Innsbruck, in the 1976 Olympics, Klammer became immortal. Television helped, his place in the seeding helped, the fact that he was racing in Austria before his countrymen helped. But he did it himself.

Klammer was seeded 15th in the gold-medal race. That meant he ran last among the top seeds. Bernhard Russi, from Switzerland, wore the No. 2 bib. He had a spectacular run.

To the waiting Klammer, Russi's time seemed unbeatable.

Last week Klammer sat quietly in the elegant Lake Placid Club, sipping beer and reliving his triumph.

"It was difficult because it was a very long time to stay at the start," he said. "There were big loudspeakers on both sides. They kept saying over and over, 'Russi is so fast. He has had so great a run...'

"It was so loud and so crowded, I could not concentrate. I know that I started badly. After the first intermediate time (one-third of the way down) I had a chance to look at the people and I said, 'I have no chance.'

"Then I say to me, 'I have to make a way. With a big risk, then it may be possible'."

The crowds were chanting then, rhythmically shouting for "Fran-ZIE, Fran-ZIE."

Those who saw it in person or on TV remember Klammer beyond the edge, flying down the mountain, his skis chattering beyond control, hopelessly bound for a terrible crash. But he never crashed

"I couldn't believe when I finished that I had won," he said. "It was on the edge -- a little bit more and there is no way to get to the finish."

Klammer's watery blue eyes were emotionless as he spoke, but he remembered every detail. Had he heard the crowd?

"No, no. Just once, I was very close to the fence and a woman made a cry 'Aaayaaarghh,' yes? I thought maybe that I had hit her with the pole..."

The second half of that race was the most perfect run he has made in his life, Klammer said.

He didn't do badly elsewhere, either.

For the last four years Klammer has been the downhill champion on the World Cup circuit, ski racing's international major league.

Klammer is here with the rest of the world's great racers this week for the World Cup races on Whiteface Mountain, where next year the United States will host the Olympics.

But he strikes fear in no one's heart.

Klammer is 24th in the World Cup downhill racing standings this year. He has 16 points, the offshoot of two fifth-place finishes at Val Gardena, Italy, in December. Nowhere else was he in the top 10.

The downhill leader is Peter Mueller of Switzerland with 89 points, including a first and three seconds in the eight races held so far. But when Mueller finishes a run at Whiteface, skiing fans walk past him to get to Klammer.

Why has Klammer faded?

Some say he already has done it all and he has no reason to press to stay on top.

Cindy Nelson, the excellent American downhill racer, said Klammer carried racing to a new plateau and it simply took the rest of the world three years to catch up. Because he's a competitor, still, she believes he'll be back on top.

So does Klammer.

"I made something wrong in my training this year," he said. "I didn't take practice in giant slalom. I need this. I was good in giant slalom (though he hasn't competed in the discipline since 1973). When I was good in GS I was good in downhill. Now I'm bad in GS and bad in downhill."

Frightening to him are his slow times this year in the early portions, or top sections, of races where high-speed turns are crucial. He always had been at his best in that section.

"I have no feeling to my skis. I lose so much time in the turns. I have no feeling for anything," he said.

So he goes through the motions, waiting until the season expires in British Columbia later this month.

In spring he will return home to Moonswald, Austria, and the hero's life. There will be windsurfing on the lake, moto-cross motorcycling near home, waterskiing.

Then to work.

Will he triumph again?

"Yes, I will be back." He smiles.

"Right now, I am better at drinking beer than at downhill. Yes?"