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Deneriaz flies to downhill victory

Deneriaz told reporters that he had already ordered the champagne


Hermann Maier
Kjetil Andre Aamodt
Bruno Kernen

SESTRIERE, Italy -- Frenchman Antoine Deneriaz took the gold in the men's downhill at the Winter Olympics on Sunday with a heroic challenge down the Kandahar Banchetta slope.

Deneriaz, who has not won a World Cup race in more than two years, beat Austrian favorite Michael Walchhofer by 0.72 seconds to capture the first major title of his career.

Bronze went to Swiss Bruno Kernen.

Walchhofer had taken the early lead and one by one the favorites failed to challenge his time.Deneriaz did so in resounding fashion with start number 30.

His winning margin of 72-hundredths of a second was the largest in the Olympic downhill since the 1964 Innsbruck Games, when Egon Zimmermann of Austria won by 74-hundreds of a second.

For France, it is the fifth men's downhill gold medal in Olympic history.

Deneriaz had been quickest in final training on Saturday but was annoyed that his time put him in the 30th start position, when he feared the course would have started breaking up.

He stunned the favorites waiting at the finish line, however, by setting the fastest time on every section of the 3.3-km course to join a host of previous surprise Olympic downhill champions.

"I was so sure I could do it that I had already ordered the champagne yesterday," Deneriaz told reporters. "I was really convinced I could do it today."

Seasoned champion Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who took gold at the Super G in Albertville 14 year ago, was pushed off the podium by Deneriaz's effort.

Americans Bode Miller and Daron Rhalves as well as Austrians Hermann Maier and defending champion Fritz Strobl all finished well outside the top three.

"I wish I could knock a zero off," said Rahlves.

Phil McNichol, the U.S. men's team head coach was more than just disappointed. "It was shocking today, I just wish it was shocking in the other direction," he said.

"We had two of the best guys in the race and we came up short. It's tough to see two guys who should do it, who could do it, fall short."

Walchhofer, who is on course to win the downhill World Cup for the second consecutive season, said he was happy with silver -- his first Olympic medal -- after making mistakes on the upper part of the course.

"My heart was beating so fast, and when Bode Miller raced it almost stopped beating," Walchhofer said, recalling how he watched the others ski after starting 10th.

His relief over seeing Miller's time -- the American finished fifth -- gave way to mixed feelings when Deneriaz won.

"Right now, I'm not feeling down any more. Of course, I pulled a long face in the first instant but after two minutes I just felt joy over silver," Walchhofer told reporters.

Kernen, 33, who was world downhill champion back in 1997, was also delighted to be on the podium. "My dream was to get an Olympic medal before retiring so I am more than happy," he said.

Deneriaz has won three World Cup races but had never done better than eighth in a world championships or Olympic Games.

Jean-Luc Cretier, won the Olympic downhill in 1998 despite never having won a World Cup race, while 1994 champion Tommy Moe of the United States won just once on the season-long tour in his career.

"This means that the Olympic law holds true -- the law that the guy who wins the Olympics is always someone unexpected," Strobl told reporters in the finish area.

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