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Friday, February 13, 1998 Published at 10:09 GMT

Sport: Winter Olympics 98: Alpine Skiing

Frenchman Cretier takes men's downhill gold
image: [ Cretier celebrates his first win in a major competition ]
Cretier celebrates his first win in a major competition

Frenchman Jean-Luc Cretier has won Olympic gold in the prestigious men's downhill at Nagano.

The 31-year-old, who had never won a major downhill before, cashed in after favourite Hermann Maier of Austria spectacularly crashed out.

[ image: Maier flys out of control....]
Maier flys out of control....
Cretier was the third person down the course, but had to wait two hours until all the other competitors had finished before he could be sure that his time of 1 minute 50.11 seconds was the fastest.

He is the first Frenchman to win gold in the men's downhill since Jean-Claude Killy in 1968.

"I raced this course by instinct," said Cretier. "For the Olympics to be my first win is just fantastic but I deserved it. It is a reward for my perseverance and hard work."

[ image: ...upside down at 60 miles an hour...]
...upside down at 60 miles an hour...
It was a victory for patience after the race had been postponed several times because of appalling weather.

As the race finally progressed, Cretier could be reasonably sure of his chances, as later skiers were found it hard to match the times of the early runners because the sun was warming the snow at the bottom of the course, and slowing it down.

[ image: ...Maier finally comes to rest, unhurt]
...Maier finally comes to rest, unhurt
Norway's Lasse Kjus, the defending Olympic combined champion, took silver in 1 minute 50.51, while Hannes Trinkl of Austria won the bronze in 1 minute 50.63.

Maier, who has dominated the World Cup circuit this season with 10 wins in 30 events, lost control on an icy bend shortly before the Alpen jump at the top of the course and flew sideways through the air at more than 60mph. He then tumbled through the orange safety nets before coming to rest in soft snow. Fortunately he was unhurt.

His team mate and close friend, Andreas Schifferer, the current World Cup downhill leader, had to wait for 11 minutes as course marshals rebuilt the fencing.

He seemed shaken by Maier's crash and eventually finished well down the order.

The race, which was due to be held on Sunday, was further delayed for an hour on Friday by swirling winds.

It finally started just after 11am local time (0200 GMT) after workers cleared snow from the Alpen jump to reduce the time the skiiers would be in the air, cutting down the risk from the gusting wind.

[ image: Luca Cattaneo is airlifted away]
Luca Cattaneo is airlifted away
The upper part of the course claimed several other victims, most notably the Italian number one, and another medal prospect, Luca Cattaneo, who slid sideways into the safety netting.

The race was halted for several minutes as workers tended to Cattaneo, who injured his left leg and had to be helped off the slopes on a sledge. A helicopter airlifted him off the mountain.

There was heartbreak too for Canada's Brian Stemmel, returning after a long injury lay-off. Skiing in 20th place he was ahead of Cretier halfway down the course, but caught an edge in the soft snow and missed a gate.

Britain's number one, Andrew Freshwater, missed a gate near the top of the course, but veteran Graham Bell, in his fifth and last Olympics, finished in 23rd place, nearly four seconds slower than Cretier.

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