MOUNT ALLAN, ALBERTA, FEB. 15 -- With devastating balance and unnerving grace, and with none of the reckless abandon that has come to be expected in the Olympic men's downhill, Pirmin Zurbriggen, the world's best skier, did exactly what he was supposed to do today.

On a rare still day at the Nakiska Ski Resort, Zurbriggen won the Olympic gold medal in the downhill, the first of his possible five golds, by beating his Swiss countryman and longtime adversary Peter Mueller by 51 one-hundredths of a second. Zurbriggen's time over the 3,106-meter course was 1 minute 59.63 seconds, a breezy average of nearly 60 mph. Mueller's time was 2:00.14.

France's Franck Piccard finished a surprising third at 2:01.24, giving his nation its first Alpine skiing medal since 1968, when Jean-Claude Killy won three golds at Grenoble. Austrian Leonard Stock, the gold medalist at Lake Placid in 1980, was fourth with a time of 2:01.56.

"I'd say it's the biggest thing I have done," Zurbriggen said. "I had a good feeling I must ski to the limit to catch {Mueller} or beat him.

"This was my biggest goal, and I arrive now and I am so happy."

Tuesday, Zurbriggen will ski in the downhill portion of the combined event, an addition to the Olympics that consists of a downhill run and a slalom run Wednesday.

U.S. and Canadian skiers followed far behind. A.J. Kitt of Rochester, N.Y., was the top U.S. finisher in 26th place with a time of 2:04.94. Rob Boyd, the curly-haired Canadian who was predicted to win a medal, finished 16th and said he might have "burned myself out trying to be too relaxed."

This race, postponed for a day when 98-mph winds battered the mountaintop, is one of the glamor events of the Winter Games, a battle of a man and a mountain; one try, winner takes all.

But today, this downhill became a personal battle between Zurbriggen and Mueller, one the rising star, the other the wily veteran of the world-best Swiss team. Zurbriggen, 25, an innkeeper's son from the tiny village of Saas-Almagell, near the Matterhorn, had never won an Olympic medal. Mueller, losing his blond hair at 30, won the silver medal in 1984 at Sarajevo and the pre-Olympic race here last year. This might be his last Olympics. It was a downhill he wanted more than any other.

Mueller skied first, Zurbriggen 14th, their positions established by a pre-race draw of the names of the 15 best skiers. Mueller wasn't happy. The last thing he wanted was to ski first. Last night, snow fell on Nakiska and, although helicopters hovered over the downhill course this morning to clear the new snow away, the run was a bit too powdery for his liking.

At the start, Mueller thought he heard an official say he had 40 seconds before he was to push off, but the next thing he heard shocked him. "Five, four, three, two, one," Mueller said, speaking English and then interpreting for himself into French and German. "I was not in full concentration for the start."

A glider, Mueller had minor trouble at the top of the course, which drops at a 67-degree angle. His left ski flared out in the third turn. He looked like he might fall. But he righted himself and except for bouncing too high and twice pulling himself out of his tuck position near the very bottom of the run, he said he was "perfect."

"It was terrible going first, but I made my best run," he said. "I just didn't know how good my time was."

Quickly, Mueller found out. Those racing down the mountain right after him were three, four seconds slower.

"Now, I have a good time," Mueller told himself.

But up at the top, waiting in his orange-and-yellow suit, was Zurbriggen. No more than 20 minutes after the downhill began, it was to end. Zurbriggen would either win the gold, or Mueller would.

Zurbriggen started fast, as everyone knew he would. "He won the top," said U.S. skier Jeff Olson, who finished 28th. "That's where he shines."

He skied the precipitous beginning .25 of a second faster than Mueller, who was watching on a big TV screen at the bottom. Now the question was whether he could maintain that margin over the flatter part of the course.

He not only maintained it, he added to it. At the second timing interval, he was .46 of a second ahead of Mueller's time, then finished with the final .51 margin.

Not once did Zurbriggen waver as he barreled down the side of the mountain. Every time his skis left the snow, they returned solidly and squarely, unlike any other skier's. He simply never lost control, never made an error.

"I know when he makes no big mistakes that it's impossible he's slower than me," Mueller said.

Although Zurbriggen's arms flailed, his legs were firm. "His lower body is always tracking, always carving, always going forward," said U.S. skier Doug Lewis, who was 32nd.

And Zurbriggen is always winning. When he saw his time had beaten Mueller's, Zurbriggen kicked his right leg in the air, with his ski still attached to it, and raised his right fist. He then took off his ski and tossed it gently into the air, catching it as it fell toward him.

Then he smiled a toothy grin. One down, four to go.