Long-awaited downhill gold a relief for Austria

Sochi: After a 10-year wait, Austria finally won men`s downhill gold on Sunday, helping to erase the embarrassing memory of Vancouver, when the team failed to secure a single Olympic medal.

With few successes in other sports, Austria has long relied on alpine skiing to bring home glory, and the downhill -- the sport`s blue-riband event -- has always been the biggest prize.

But until 23-year-old Matthias Mayer stormed through the finish line Sunday at Rosa Khutor to nab gold, the alpine nation suffered through an 11-year dry spell on the men`s side.

The last Austrian to win a downhill at an Olympics or world championships was Michael Walchhofer in St. Moritz in February, 2003.

Even worse, the men`s team failed to bring home a single medal of any colour from the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver -- a disaster for home fans and media alike, making Sunday`s win all the sweeter.

"After so many years to get Olympic gold in the downhill again is really special," Austrian ski federation sports director Hans Pum told AFP.

"It wasn`t going so well for us in the downhill but we knew we had a strong and young team and Matthias has got stronger and stronger, you could see that in the last few races.

"That he carried it through like this, it shows incredible mental strength and I`m happy for him.

"I`m happy for the whole team and for Austria of course but mostly for Matthias," he rejoiced.

For men`s ski coach Mathias Berthold, Sunday`s gold was a boon for a team weighed down by expectations.

"It`s always great to have such a start at a big event."

"It takes some of the pressure off of people who will come later, like Marcel (Hirscher), Benni (Raich) or Mario Matt," he said of his top slalom racers.

"I was quite confident going into the Olympics. But a start like that, this is maybe something we didn`t expect."

At world championships on home snow last year, the Austrian men`s failure to climb on the podium in either speed event -- downhill and super-G -- had the press baying for blood before overall World Cup winner Hirscher redeemed the team with slalom gold.

2012 World Cup downhill winner Klaus Kroell also recalled the expectations and disappointments of four years ago.

"In Vancouver, it was really tiring for everyone as there were no medals and we were constantly asked about it," he told AFP.

"Now it`s been dealt with. We have gold already after the first race. I hope we can get a few more."

Mayer himself said he knew how important his performance would be before he started.

"As an Austrian you always know when you start and if you win a race that it will be highly valued in Austria," said the youngster, who has only been racing at World Cup level since 2011 and was not a favourite going into the Olympics.

"So it`s often difficult for young racers, you often feel the pressure, or sometimes not. Today I didn`t and that`s why I was successful."

For Berthold, who urged his team all season to raise their act, there was finally a sense of redemption about this precious first Olympic gold.

"We had very good races but we didn`t win (in recent seasons)."

"With (World Cup downhill) Kitzbuehel and now here, we`ve won the two most important downhills. And that`s fantastic."