MOUNT ALLAN, ALBERTA, FEB. 19 -- The same bothersome wind was at the Winter Olympics for the women's downhill today, but that was the only predictable occurrence. The favored Swiss bickered and lost and Canada finally got a medal, but not the one it expected. So Marina Kiehl, an adorably moody West German, won her first downhill ever for the coveted gold medal in what was a histrionic race.
Clutching a hideous stuffed devil for luck and hiding in a corner of the finish area, Kiehl, 23, delayed her celebration until all 35 skiers had completed the ragged course, which seven competitors abandoned, including U.S. hope Hilary Lindh. Kiehl, skiing eighth down the Nakiska route, had raced a reckless time of 1:25.86 that bettered the times of the best downhillers in the world.
Those included World Cup leader and defending Olympic champion Michela Figini and 1984 silver medalist Maria Walliser, two members of the brilliant but contentious Swiss team, who finished out of contention.
"It will take days or months or even a year to realize it," Kiehl said. "I never expected to win the gold. It's a wonder, a mystery."
But the Swiss are rarely out of the medals completely. Brigitte Oertli was three-fourths of a second behind Kiehl with a time of 1:26.61 to win the silver. That was just 1/100th of a second better than another surprise medalist, Karen Percy of nearby Banff, who also stared worriedly at the finish before celebrating her time of 1:26.62 and the bronze, Canada's first of the Games.
This race already had been delayed once because of gusting winds, when Oertli was blown out of a gate Thursday on the day's first run and protested strenuously until it was rescheduled. There was some debate whether the event should have been run today, at least according to Figini, the favorite who finished ninth in 1:27.26.
"The wind bothered me, it's not fair," Figini told Walliser, and everyone else.
Walliser, who is second in the World Cup standings for downhill and sixth overall, came down the hill in 1:26.89, for fourth. Although she was the fourth skier down, she said she knew immediately her time was probably out of medal contention.
"I've been on the circuit a long time and I knew it wouldn't be good enough to win," she said. "Fourth place is not something to be happy with. But it's done."
The murmurs of discontent with the conditions implied that Kiehl's victory was a fluke. But the red-haired, hazel-eyed veteran, who began on the circuit when she was 15, is not unfamiliar with victory, winning seven Super Giant slalom World Cup races since 1984. Although she is known for mood swings, she was an amiable and thrilled champion today, who had the grace to say, "I was lucky."
Kiehl's reputation as a loner who can be disagreeable is restricted to the course. "It's my work," she said. When she tried this year to be nicer, a West German newspaper ran a story that said, "Marina, get nasty again." Having grown up in Munich, she has a liking for nightlife that earned the nickname "Disco Queen," and sometimes gets her in trouble with coaches. She also has a habit of saying exactly what she thinks, and stated her views on the wind complaints succinctly.
"It's always the same," she said. "The ones who win don't worry about it, the ones who lost, they worry. I won and that counts for me. It's done and no one can say anything about it."
On a twisting, icy course, Kiehl skied the kind of throat-clutching run that has come to characterize the downhill. Almost sliding off the course on the second severe turn, and sometimes on one ski, she barely held her limbs together. It was a marvelously edgy performance from a skier not particularly noticed in training runs.
Oertli was content to win the sole and most unexpected Swiss medal. "It shows I am someone," she said through an interpreter.
Kiehl's previous best in downhill was a fourth place, and she was sixth in Sarajevo in 1984.
"I knew I was a good skier, and I thought one day the luck must come to my side," she said. "It was a wild ride, I nearly fell two times. To win at the Olympics, in front of the best skiers in the world, that's important to me. It makes me happy."
The Americans counted themselves fortunate just to get two of their four racers down the hill after an injury-plagued season that 23-year-old Pam Fletcher called "the Amityville Horror." Fletcher, considered the best U.S. prospect, suffered the latest of a series of injuries that have sidelined 11 U.S. skiers at one time or another this season, when she broke her left fibula in training Thursday.
Today, Lindh, 18, of Juneau, Alaska, who had posted a third place in training, fell off the course at the top. Edith Thys, 21, of Squaw Valley, Calif., finished 18th, and 19-year-old Kristin Krone of Truckee, Calif., 20th.