KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Matthias Mayer of Austria won the Olympic downhill Sunday as the big favorites struggled in Alpine skiing's signature race.
The son of an Olympic medalist, Mayer completed the Rosa Khutor course in 2 minutes, 6.23 seconds. Christof Innerhofer of Italy took silver, 0.06 seconds behind, and Kjetil Jansrud of Norway earned bronze, 0.10 behind.
Pre-race favorites Aksel Lund Svindal and Bode Miller finished fourth and eighth, respectively.
The once-dominant Austrian men's team didn't win a single medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
"A start like this, this is maybe something we didn't expect," Austria men's head coach Mathias Berthold said. "He seemed pretty confident. I wasn't sure. He's not an experienced guy so you never know what he's going to do."
The 23-year-old Mayer was one of the first contenders to come down, with the No. 11 bib, and he trailed Jansrud at the second checkpoint but mastered the rest of the course.
Mayer hardly celebrated when he reached the finish. But his smile grew wider as all the favorites failed to catch him and then began jumping up and down before he went out for the flower ceremony.
"The last races, he was very super-fast in training and he always did something stupid (in races) because he's so young. You know, he's the youngest of the top 30 here," Berthold said. "Finally, he was able to put it together."
Once the race was over, Mayer closed his eyes as he was introduced to the crowd then opened them up and jumped onto the top step of the podium and raised his arms in celebration, as Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann looked on from the stands.
Mayer's joy came in sharp contrast to Miller's desperation.
After crossing the finish, Miller sat down on his skis with a look of bewilderment on his face. And that was understandable, considering that he had dominated two of the three official training sessions.
"It's tough. I was looking to win," Miller said. "I thought I had a good chance at it. I was well-prepared."
Miller was one of the fastest skiers on the top section but lost speed when he hit a gate on a right turn a bit further down.
"He pinched it off and went into the gate," Italian skier Dominik Paris said. "It was a critical section there."
With clouds hanging over the course during the race, conditions were different from the sun and shade of the training sessions.
"The visibility has changed a ton from the training run," Miller said. "The middle and bottom of the course slowed so much from the beginning of the race until I went that I thought you have to do something magical to win.
"I didn't really make any mistakes in the middle and bottom of the course," Miller added. "And I lost a ton of time."
Svindal was also fast on top but lost speed when his large frame went soaring into the air over the big jumps lining the rest of the course.
Mayer is short and compact and appeared more aerodynamic over the jumps.
Mayer became one of the more surprising gold medalists in the sport's marquee race. He has never finished better than fifth in a World Cup downhill.
Other surprise winners have included 21-year-old Leonhard Stock, who earned a first career victory in 1980. Stock's next downhill win came nine years later in the World Cup.
Also, Jean-Luc Cretier of France made his only career downhill win count at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
But Mayer led the second downhill training session, was third in the opening session, and appears to have a very bright future. His father, Helmut, won a silver medal in the super-G at the 1988 Calgary Games.
Mayer was not even supposed to be Austria's top contender but he was thrust into that position when Hannes Reichelt was sidelined with a back surgery after winning the prestigious Kitzbuehel downhill on home snow two weeks ago.
Ski-loving Austria has won more men's downhills at the Olympics than any other nation, seven of 18, but the previous one came in 2002 from Fritz Strobl, who happens to be from the same region in southern Austria as Mayer. So is Franz Klammer, who won the 1976 Innsbruck Games downhill.
Mayer has had more success in super-G, including a silver medal at the 2008 junior world championships and two second-place World Cup showings. Those super-G skills suited him well for the Olympic downhill course, which was extremely technical.
At 3.5 kilometers (2.17 miles), the Rosa Khutor piste was also one of the most physically demanding tests skiers faced all season. With three big jumps, one of which sent skiers soaring into the air for 70 meters (yards), it provided for a spectacular race.
Many skiers had to flail their arms while in the air off the jumps just to maintain their balance.
Skiers had to navigate sharp turns on the steep upper section, go over bone-rattling ice in the middle then get into their tucks on some sweeping flats before a couple more jumps into the finish.
Only two racers failed to finish.
The stands were only half full at the start due to an apparent traffic problem. But they filled up as the race wore on.
The start of the race was delayed for 15 minutes due to a gondola problem.
The next event on the Alpine schedule is the women's super-combined Monday, followed by the women's downhill Wednesday.
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