MOUNT ALLAN, Alberta -- The super giant slalom is a drag race downhill around 50 poles. So slick and steep was the Olympic course Sunday that a third of the world's 15 best chargers "abandoned the course," which is ski talk for crashed and burned.

Little wonder that even the sport's preeminent daredevil, Pirmin Zurbriggen, was a bit tentative out of the gate. Two of his major competitors, Alberto Tomba and Markus Wasmeier, hadn't made it to the fourth gate. And Zurbriggen had taken a tumble in his last race.

Of the nearly 1,700 athletes from 57 countries at the XV Winter Olympics, none had arrived under more pressure than Zurbriggen. He was considered a semicinch to win three gold medals and given a chance, with luck, to capture all five Alpine tests.

Before he snapped boot to ski here, the 25-year-old Swiss was lifted to the plateau of Jean-Claude Killy and Anton Sailer. They had mined the mountain in 1968 and 1956, when only three golds were available.

To a stranger among the Alpiners, this seemed a mighty weight to strap on Zurbriggen's shoulders. It set him up to be a bum if all he did was win, say, two golds. No golfer ever thought of stabbing Jack Nicklaus with his 1-iron for not winning the grand slam.

Well, Zurbriggen has finished his three strongest events -- and completed the sort of triple that is both exhilarating and disappointing. In order, he won a gold (downhill), failed to finish (combined) and ran out of the money (Super G).

What very well may have glided into Zurbriggen's thoughts at the top of the hill late Sunday morning was this: He'd botched a gold in the combined by being too reckless; the stoutest competition suddenly had become a nonfactor.

The Super G is new to the Olympics, it being the longest slalom and designed to coax such as Tomba away from the lodge. Tomba was out; so were a few others. And Zurbriggen already had beaten the leader, Franck Piccard, six days ago in the downhill.

"I heard Markus abandoned," Zurbriggen told a Swiss journalist, "so I did not take all the risks. I also had a choice of two pairs of skis. One was very well on the turns; the other was faster on the flat part.

"What I tried {the skis more suited to the turns at the top of the run} did not work. I did not ski well at the top, and the wind got to me at the bottom."

The Super G apparently was third among his three priorities, Zurbriggen indicated, the downhill he won being first. Tomba's strengths are the two slaloms later this week.

So the confrontation, Zurbriggen versus Tomba, was a bust. The stylish and outgoing Italian was forced into a hot-dog maneuver to avoid falling on his considerable reputation a few seconds out of the box.

The quiet Zurbriggen also was out of medal contention halfway down the course, having committed minor errors near the top that led to major time lapses.

Neutral spectators were rather pleased with the result, Frenchman Piccard offering a link with Killy after all. He was the overlooked hot skier in pre-Olympic events.

And wasn't it nice, somebody mentioned, for a Swede whose name isn't Stenmark to climb on the medal platform? That was a reference to bronze medalist Lars-Boerje Eriksson.

Nobody was in any way concerned that one of Tomba's coaches, Tino Pietrogiovanna, laid out the Super G course. Tomba, Zurbriggen and Wasmeier were more suited than others to the stern top part.

"You must go 100 percent," West German Wasmeier said after his fall. "I wanted 100 percent, but maybe I went 110 percent."

The course was exceptionally rough, man-made snow apparently being harder than God's variety -- and even slicker when wind-swept.

Also, the gates were placed in tricky positions.

For Zurbriggen, his position after the race was as odd and uncomfortable as it had been during a run that got him tied for fifth. As the medal winners talked excitedly at reporters from about six yards and two snow fences away, he was silent.

Four years ago, at Sarajevo, Zurbriggen had finished fourth (by 10 hundredths of a second) in the downhill and fallen in both the slalom and giant slalom.

He had followed that by winning the overall World Cup in '84 and '87 and finishing second in between. He was first in three disciplines (downhill, giant slalom, Super G) coming into the Olympics.

Zurbriggen's face graces a postcard that features his hometown; already in print is a biography ("Pirmin: Human and Champion").

His father, Alois, had quit the sport after a younger brother died in a skiing accident, but returned long enough to teach Pirmin and his sister.

Zurbriggen Sunday had his back to his public for quite a while; his helmet was perched atop his skis. In the crowd nearby, his girlfriend, Moni Julen, offered some perspective.

"He looked so much on the downhill," said Julen, herself a world-class skier.

"He concentrated so much on it. He's used to that, all the press {who were shouting for his attention at the time}.

"Usually, he's so good he can take it from the beginning and concentrate when people put pressure on him. People count {medals and World Cup victories}, but he never counts. He tries to do the best each race, and I think that's the best way. He shouldn't count too much."