SOCHI (Russia) (AFP) – Austria’s Matthias Mayer stormed to gold in the Winter Olympics men’s downhill Sunday as Russia eyed a first medal and tried to solve the problem of empty seats at its $50 billion showpiece.
Mayer, 23, clocked 2min 06.23sec down the 3.5km-long course at Rosa Khotur, high above the Black Sea, for the first Austrian downhill gold since Fritz Stroebl at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
Mayer also bettered his father Helmut’s silver-medal showing in the super-G at the Calgary Games in 1998.
“Of course it means a lot to me,” an emotional Mayer said. “It’s really difficult to go down the track without mistakes.”
Italian Christof Innerhofer took silver at just six-hundredths of a second behind while Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud claimed bronze a further 0.04sec adrift.
World downhill champion Aksel Lund Svindal was fourth while another strong favourite, Bode Miller of the United States, was a disappointing eighth.
“I skied hard and well, and that’s the most important thing. It just didn’t go right,” said Miller, racing in his fifth Olympics.
Hosts Russia were fighting on two fronts — looking for a first medal to ease the huge burden of expectation and to get spectators to the compactly placed venues in time for events.
Organisers said they had sold 92 percent of the tickets available for the first day of medal competition on Saturday but admitted thousands had not made it on time due to security checks.
Saturday saw reasonable crowds but some banks of empty seats could still be seen for most disciplines.
However, the spokeswoman for the organising committee, Alexandra Kosterina, told reporters that 92 percent of the available tickets had been sold and “we are happy with that”.
“We saw pretty full stadia. We had a good turnout and hope it will get even better as the Olympics go on.”
She also admitted that “we had some problems due to the Russian mentality of arriving as close as possible to the start of an event and never in advance”.
Later Sunday, Russia could win their first gold in the figure skating team competition.
The hosts have 47 points, six ahead of Canada, with the United States third on 34 ahead of the third and final day.
Fittingly, veteran Russian star Yevgeny Plushenko, 31, can seal his second Olympic gold after 2006 when he skates in the men’s free skating final, with the women’s and ice dancing finals also scheduled.
Switzerland’s Simon Ammann, the 2002 and 2010 double Olympic champion, will aim to become the first ski jumper to win five gold medals when the normal hill final is staged.
But the favourites will be Kamil Stoch of Poland, the current World Cup leader, and Austria’s Gregor Schlierenzauer, the 2010 team gold medal winner on the large hill.
The men’s luge could see Russian 42-year-old Albert Demchenko become the oldest Winter Olympic medallist in an individual event.
Demchenko knows he has a real opportunity to make history after he finished the first day of the men’s singles in second position with two more runs to come on Sunday.
However, defending champion Felix Loch of Germany, who leads after two rounds, remains the red-hot favourite for the title.
There are also gold medal events in the women’s 3,000 metres speed skating, women’s snowboard slopestyle, the men’s Nordic cross-country skiathlon and the women’s biathlon 7.5km sprint.