VAL D'ISERE, France -- A big, broad-shouldered Austrian long shot won the men's downhill of the Winter Olympics yesterday, a fitting resolution to a day at the races that was nothing if not strange.
The first of 56 skiers to come down a stunning and controversial course loaded with speed-killing turns, Patrick Ortlieb, a 24-year-old from Bregenz, finished five-hundredths of a second faster than France's Franck Piccard. Another Austrian, Guenther Mader, was third.
AJ Kitt, considered the United States' best medal hope in any skiing event, finished ninth.
"I guess it's mediocre, but it's OK for me," Kitt said.
It was more than OK for Ortlieb, whose victory was his first in a World Cup or Olympic race. That did not prevent him from criticizing the course afterward, calling it too slow.
"I hope I never have to race this course again," he said. "It didn't do anything to make you have to overcome inhibitions in yourself."
The course, bare of trees, was designed by Bernhard Russi, a former Swiss downhiller, who departed from tradition by making it possible for fans at the bottom to see the starting gate at the top, and then at least the last half of the race.
On a warm, cloudless day with a deep blue sky above, the skiers almost appeared to drop out of the sky. The spectacle left the estimated 20,000 fans roaring and at least some racers impressed.
"This is the future of downhill racing," Piccard said.
But the skiers had to make a number of turns and adjust to a series of changes in pitch. Some said it resembled a slalom course more than a downhill, which was why slalom champion Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg was the pre-race favorite.
Girardelli, a four-time World Cup champion who never has won an Olympic medal, was near Ortlieb's leading time halfway down his run when he missed a gate and had to abandon.
Ortlieb said he benefited from being the first racer down the course, which was a matter of luck. The top 15 seeds had a blind draw.
"I know when I race late [in the draw] I start to worry about the
times," Ortlieb said. "Going first is great for me because I can just concentrate on going down the hill.
"When I reached the bottom and saw the time [1 minute, 50.37 seconds], I knew I would have nothing to be ashamed of here today. I had no idea if it would stand up. It was a very, very long wait."
Indeed, he stood at the bottom of the course and watched two dozen racers with legitimate chances come down the mountain after his medal. One by one, the favorites came up short.
Switzerland's Franz Heinzer, considered the best downhiller in the world, finished sixth. Kitt, second in the World Cup downhill standings this year, was never a threat.
"I guess in the end the course really was not perfect for me," Kitt said. "I'm a downhiller. The [turns] do not suit me as well as some of the others. That's why I'm basically satisfied."
The next-to-last serious challenger was Piccard, 27, the gold medalist in the super-G at the 1988 Olympics. He was the 23rd starter, the number low because of a yearlong slump. He finished 70th in one World Cup race.
But he put on an inspired performance, with his countrymen cheering him all the way down the mountain. When he reached the bottom and looked at his time, he turned and blew kisses to the crowd and raised his arms in exultation.
"The result is a thank-you to all the people who supported me when I was doing so poorly," he said. "I took some time off and enjoyed the family life for a while, and since I came back, I feel much better. I feel like skiing again."
Ortlieb's gold medal was assured when the last serious challenger, Paul Accola of Switzerland, missed a gate on the top half of the course.
"It hasn't hit me yet," Ortlieb said. "Maybe in two or three days it will."
Certainly, it will take the ski world at least that long.
"All I know about the guy," said Howard Peterson, an American coach, about Ortlieb, "is that I see him in the cafeteria getting two plates of food, and when he finishes, he gets up and goes back for more."
=1 You can look it up: A moose won the downhill.