By Alan Baldwin
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Matthias Mayer won Olympic downhill gold on Sunday to give the Austrian men's team the perfect start to the Alpine skiing competition with the first major success of his fledgling career.
On an overcast day when big favourites Bode Miller and Aksel Lund Svindal failed to shine, Italy's Christof Innerhofer - so nearly living up to his 'Winnerhofer' tag - took the silver and Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud snapped up the bronze.
"It's crazy. It's the greatest thing you can achieve as a sportsman - unbelievable," Mayer, who had set the quickest time in Friday training in the Caucasus mountains towering high above Sochi, told reporters.
After concern about high jumps and safety, with two racers ruled out after being injured in heavy falls on Saturday, the icy Rosa Khutor piste claimed no further victims on a day of thrills without spills.
With cowbells clanging in the grandstands, where fans made plenty of noise despite several hundred empty seats, Mayer added another Olympic medal to the family collection.
The 23-year-old, who started 11th, is the son of 1988 super-G silver medallist Helmut and had said earlier in the week that he had Olympic blood in the family and felt the Olympic spirit.
"I often came close to the podium on the World Cup tour this season so I felt able to do well here with a clean run," said the Austrian.
"My dad just told me to let it go and aim for a clean run."
His winning time of two minutes, 06.23 seconds was 0.06 faster than Innerhofer's but he had a nervous moment as the Italian scorched through the first intermediate 0.58 quicker and was still 0.21 ahead after the third.
NO RISK, NO FUN
The Italian, super-G world champion in 2011 but no higher than fifth in World Cup downhill this season, was happy enough with silver - pumping the air and emptying his lungs with a bellow of jubilation.
"It was all nothing - no risk, no fun," he said.
Mayer's gold medal continued an Austrian tradition of first-time winners on the biggest stage of all and provided an immediate boost for a men's team who failed to win a single medal in Vancouver four years ago.
The last Austrian to win the downhill gold was Fritz Strobl in 2002. Compatriots Patrick Ortlieb (1992) and Leonhard Stock (1980) also took their first big career wins in the Olympic downhill.
Hannes Reichelt had been seen as the main Austrian contender this time but was ruled out last month after winning in Kitzbuehel.
Miller, 36, was bidding to become the oldest man to win an Alpine gold at a Games but was left hanging his head after finishing eighth.
"It's tough, obviously. I was looking to win," he told reporters after a lingering kiss from his wife. "I obviously thought I had a chance in it. But it's tough when things don't go your way."
The American showman had been 0.31 of a second quicker than Mayer at the second time check but then lost a heap of time in the bottom part of the course to finish in 2:06.75.
"The conditions changed a bit (from training), bad visibility doesn't help me at all," he said. "I tried to go just fast (at the top) and made a couple of mistakes.
"I skied well at the top and skied fast, in the middle I'm not sure where the time went. The middle and bottom sections slowed down so much from the beginning to when I went that you would have had to do something magical to win."
Svindal, the downhill world champion and 2010 silver medallist, was pipped to a medal by bearded compatriot Jansrud and finished fourth.
"I didn't go fast enough, it was difficult at the top and I made lots of mistakes, I lost too much time and the others were too fast," he said. "I knew it wasn't just between me and Bode. Matthias was the fastest and he deserved to win."
(Additional reporting by Mark Trevelyan and Martyn Herman,; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Ed Osmond)