Eberharter wins World Cup downhill title

Saturday, February 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ST. MORITZ, Switzerland (AP) _ Overall leader Stephan Eberharter clinched his first World Cup downhill title, leading an Austrian sweep of the first five places in Saturday's race, consolidating his status as the hot gold medal favorite at the upcoming Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Eberharter, who finished last season runnerup in the downhill standings to his illustrious teammate Hermann Maier, sped down the steep and bumpy 2,989-meter (3,268-yard) Corviglia course in 1 minute, 39.07 seconds.

``This title is more important to me than a title in the super-G or giant slalom,'' said Eberharter after winning the first crystal globe of his 12-year career on the World Cup circuit. ``I'm ecstatic.

``I never expected to win the downhill title, maybe the super-G or giant slalom but not the downhill. It also gives me great pleasure to win another race. The season has been going absolutely wonderfully.''

It marked the 17th time an Austrian skier claimed the downhill title since the start of World Cup in 1967. No other nation has won the discipline crystal globe as often. The Swiss are the second most prolific nation, having won it 12 times.

Teammate Fritz Strobl, the winner of a downhill in Bormio, was runnerup in 1:39.25.

``The feeling is always good to be second,'' Strobl said. ``I gave it my best and on the upper part I was really good. But I made a mistake lower down, lost time and at the finish I was second.''

Michael Walchhofer climbed the discipline podium for the third time this season, crossing third in 1:39.85 despite niggling health problems.

``My form is really good in the downhill now,'' said Walchhofer, who had the flu in Bormio in December, was injured in Wengen earlier this month and had knee problems in Kitzbuehel two weeks ago. ``At the start of the week I had problems with my back. Yesterday was the first day I felt really good and today was perfect.''

Hannes Trinkl was fourth in 1:39.91 immediately followed by Klaus Kroell who clocked 1:39.96.

With only four Olympic berths available per discipline per nation, Austrian skiers have been fiercely vying among themselves to impress national selectors, with seven finishing among the top-10.

``The best answer is to have good results,'' Strobl shrugged. ``I think I have good enough results for the Olympics. The coaches still have to tell us about the team for the U.S.A. but I feel confident.''

It marked Eberharter's fifth victory in eight downhill races this season and his 15th career World Cup win.

The win padded his downhill points total to 670, putting him out of reach with only two races remaining this season, in Kvitfjell, Norway, and the World Cup finals in Altenmarkt, Austria. With only 200 points up for grabs, Strobl, second with 425, cannot catch him. Norwegian alrounder Kjetil Andre Aamodt sits third with 302.

Eberharter will continue in his quest for points toward the overall title in Sunday's giant slalom. He has already finished on the podium twice in the technical discipline, placing second and third in the season's opening two races.

The 32-year-old Austrian tops the overall with 1,292 points, with Aamodt second on 936. American technical specialist Bode Miller sits third with 820.

Eberharter enters next week's Olympics as the man to beat in the speed events, having also won three of the season's four super-G races.

``Everyone expects me to win the downhill in Salt Lake,'' Eberharter said. ``But it's never easy to win the gold medal. On the day everything has to be perfect and you can't plan that.

``I go to America with great confidence and I'll give it my best shot. But if it doesn't work, the world will keep on turning.''

A meaty downhill with a steep vertical drop from the start, the Corviglia course will serve for the men's world championships next winter.