THE men's downhill ski race strikes the dramatic first note in the athletic symphony that is the Winter Olympics. It is the downbeat that grabs the world audience with raw speed (nearly 80 miles per hour), seat-of-the-pants thrills, and sometimes startling results.
In the last category, the Lillehammer games certainly delivered on Sunday: American Tommy Moe of Palmer, Alaska, sprang a major upset by outracing a field of 54 other entrants down a nearly two-mile run.
Moe's previous best finish in a World Cup downhill was a fifth last year. On this day, however, he was king of the mountain at the Kvitfjell Alpine Centre, turning in a time that was four-hundredths of a second better than home-crowd favorite Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who skied immediately before Moe.
Aamodt, perhaps the best skier in the world today, had said that he most coveted a downhill victory here. He had to settle for the silver as another surprising finisher, bronze-medalist Edward Podivinsky of Canada, gave North America its greatest showing ever in a men's Olympic downhill race.
The North American women actually beat the men to the punch, grabbing two spots on the medal podium at 1992 Albertville Games in France, where Canadian Kerrin Lee-Gartner and American Hillary Lindh finished 1-2. Lindh has returned to the Olympics and will race Saturday.
The day before Moe's victory, Lindh had participated in a press conference for the US women Alpine skiers in which they were asked why the women's team has often produced better results than the men.
Various theories were put forth, including a lack of confidence among the men. One skier even said the men sometimes are so awestruck watching the top Europeans that they lose sight of how impressive their own runs can look on videotape. Using herself as an example, Lindh almost prophetically offered that ``the thing about the Olympics is that people who don't expect can get in there [and win medals].''
The downhill in particular seems to lend itself to awarding the hottest skier of the moment, partly because it is an all-or-nothing single run down the mountain. Bill Johnson found the course at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo to his liking, and made off with the only other American gold medal in the event.
The most famous and dramatic of all Olympic downhill performances was Franz Klammer's in 1976, when the son of an Austrian farmer careened recklessly to a gold medal in front his countrymen at the Innsbruck Games. Nicknamed ``the Astronaut,'' he kidded that his father would have a pitchfork waiting for him when he got home.
Also of note
r When the Winter Games were first held in Chamonix, France, 70 years ago, the organizers counted on ticket sales much more than they do today. The largest share of revenues (35 percent) for the 1924 Games came from the 10,000 tickets sold.
An estimated 1.4 million tickets will be sold to the Games in Lillehammer, but ticket revenues for these Olympics and those for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta will provide the International Olympic Committee with only 10 percent of its $2.5 billion marketing revenues for the current quadrennium (1993-1996). Television rights (48 percent) and sponsorships (34 percent) are the main sources of revenue for the Olympics today.
r A daily auction of a Lillehammer Olympic T-shirt was used to generate local excitement during the run-up to the Games. So what explains the $3,700 one shirt brought in Minot, North Dakota? Simple: Minot is Lillehammer's American sister city.
r While it seems very natural to have the Winter Olympics in Scandinavia, Norway and Sweden originally strongly resisted efforts to create separate Winter Games. Sports officials wanted to protect traditional events in their countries - the Holmenkollen skiing festival outside Oslo and the regional Nordic Games. (This reluctance was not unlike that in tennis several years ago, when some worried that reintroducing tennis to the Olympics would take away from the sport's Grand Slam tournaments.)
To go back a moment, figure skating was scheduled to be on the program of the 1900 Paris summer Olympics, but the plan never materialized. Figure skating did make it into the 1908 Games in London, apparently because the city was eager to show off its magnificent ice hall.
By 1912 a move was afoot to award Olympic status to the Nordic Games. The Swedes and Norwegians balked. In something of a compromise, plans were made to include speed skating, ice hockey, and skiing in the 1916 summer Games in Berlin. (The Games were canceled, however, at the outbreak of World War I in 1914.)
Olympic officials succeeded four years later by placing hockey and figure skating on the 1920 summer program in Antwerp, Belgium.
Winter sports had entered the Olympics through the back door. Norway and Sweden continued to resist a Winter Olympics, unsuccessfully. They participated in the first Winter Games, held in 1924 in Chamonix.