Downhill opens U.S.-Austria showdown

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— Maybe this is the team and the time.

Up in the Alps, the superpower everybody wants to knock off is Austria. And as improbable as it would have seemed just a few years ago, the United States is the popular choice to do it.

Skiers from all over have been approaching Daron Rahlves and his U.S. teammates in the run-up to the Turin Olympics and wishing them well, hoping they'll challenge the Austrian men's firm control of the sport.

"They're at the top. They know it. They act like it. And they've been there for a long time. So I think it's only natural that the feeling on the tour is: Anybody but them," U.S. men's head coach Phil McNichol said Saturday. "We've actually been able to really put some dings in their armor. And so a lot of people have got behind us and said, 'OK, go get 'em guys!'"

Rahlves and Bode Miller have flashed gold medal form in training runs and get their first crack at Hermann Maier and other Austrians in today's downhill, the premier event in the mountains.

"We are here to win," Austrian Alpine director Hans Pum said. "Some count on it, the others dream of it."

The Austrians do it more than anyone else in men's Alpine skiing.

Six of the past eight seasons an Austrian has won the World Cup overall title, the sport's most prestigious annual award.

Austrians have won 155 of 367 downhills in World Cup history. Americans? A more modest 17 -- three by Rahlves this season.

Austrians have won 55 Olympic medals, 17 gold. Americans? Ten medals, three gold.

"The focus is on Austria. Those guys always step it up, and there are so many of them, and it seems every year there's a new guy," said Scott Macartney, who beat Marco Sullivan in Saturday's ski-off to win the fourth and final U.S. downhill berth. "We're starting to do that, and when we come in and steal a podium, the Austrians don't like it."

Recently, Miller and Rahlves have started doing that regularly enough to build the beginnings of a true rivalry between the countries. Last season, Miller became the first American in 22 years to win the overall World Cup. At the 2005 Alpine World Championships, he and Rahlves finished 1-2 in the downhill, while Miller also won the super-G and Rahlves took a bronze in the giant slalom.

Part of what's so intimidating about the Austrian team is its depth, with enough talent to have claimed the top nine places in a 1999 World Cup race. At the Olympics, squads are limited to four skiers per event, and while McNichol likes his chances, he begrudgingly respects his rivals.

"The Austrians are just so overwhelmingly dominant, like maybe when the Dallas Cowboys had their run," he said. "Even if you were a Cowboys fan, after a while you were just like, 'You know what? I'm going to root for somebody else.'"

The Austrians acknowledge they must be wary of an up-and-coming U.S. Ski Team that has benefited from better financing and coaching.

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