THE OLYMPICS: WINTER GAMES AT ALBERTVILLE : Kitt Tries to Go Up the Ladder in Downhill : Skiing: U.S. men's top contender, 26th at Calgary, is 13th in final practice run for today's race.

TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

In February of 1988 at Nakiska, near Calgary, AJ Kitt was the top American finisher in the Olympic men's downhill. He was 26th.

Today, in less than two minutes on the Bellevarde Face, he hopes that four years of hard work will pay off with a medal and the rewards that go with it. Gold would be great, silver or bronze probably OK.

In Saturday's final training run, Kitt posted the 13th-fastest time, which if it means anything, indicates he is at least halfway there, though still far short of a medal. A training run, however, is merely that--a chance to set the proper line down 1 3/4 miles of bumps, turns and jumps to the finish line in the middle of this mile-high village.

"My run was OK," Kitt said after his 1:52.86 flashed on the scoreboard. "There were no problems. I'm confident about the race and just have to clean up a few things."

Asked how his skiing at the moment rates on a scale of 10, Kitt said: "It's about a nine, but that last step is a big one."

Jan Einar Thorsen of Norway, the first racer, was clocked in 1:50.93, and he remained the leader throughout the sunny afternoon.

Four-time World Cup overall champion Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg came out of the second seeded spot to take second in 1:51.27, and Guenther Mader of Austria, one of the favorites on this course that favors the more technical skiers, was third in 1:51.84. Everyone else was over 1:52.

The Canadian team, already hurt by the absence of top downhiller Rob Boyd because of an injury, lost Ed Podivinsky when he suffered a torn ligament in his right knee during the final training run. Podivinsky was airlifted from the mountain to a hospital.

Kitt, who predicted Thursday that it would take a 1:47 or 1:48 to win the race, revised his estimate. "No, that's out of reach now," he said.

Other favorites include Franz Heinzer, the world's No. 1 downhiller, who was seventh Saturday in 1:52.13; Heinzer's Swiss teammate, Daniel Mahrer; Austria's veteran speedburners Patrick Ortlieb, Leonhard Stock and Helmut Hoeflehner, and Markus Wasmeier of Germany, who, like Mader, is generally more proficient in the giant slalom and super-G.

Then there's also Switzerland's Paul Accola, the World Cup overall leader, who was 11th Saturday in 1:52.50. According to Karl Schranz, Austria's champion of the late 1960s and early '70s: "This course is very good for Accola, and he could win. Of course, Heinzer is always tough, and you have to watch out for Wasmeier, too."

And what about the Austrians? At last count, you named two Swiss and a German, and they only award three medals.

"Oh, of course," Schranz said. "An Austrian will definitely be in the top three."

Oh.

Schranz called the Bellevarde course "a good one, and very exciting."

Kitt, who last year criticized the course as "too slow," then on Thursday called it "improved," said Saturday: "It's so-so, but a lot of fun."

How much fun will be determined today, not long after Kitt steps out of the starting shack, at 9,214 feet, into an elevator shaft that, as he said, "takes you from zero to 60 (m.p.h.) in 10 seconds."

After the initial steep pitch, the course flattens out until the racer makes a left turn onto the first bump, where he becomes airborne without being able to see where he will land. The steepness continues to a point, shortly before a large tramway tower, where the racer must make a sharp right turn, then hang on through a fallaway turn across the icy hill with nothing but a netting-guarded sheer cliff, seemingly inches away from his left ski.

Then it's into the aerodynamic tuck position for a schuss down a wide pitch that ends with a big left turn onto another blind bump and a short flight into a narrow S-turn through a cluster of rocks. Three technical, steep turns follow before the racer hits the final bump, the biggest on the course, and flies onto the steep but wide run-out into the finish area.

In less than two minutes, he has dropped considerably more than half a mile to an elevation of 6,027 feet, with about three-quarters of his descent visible to the crowd below.

Those spectators began gathering Friday night; thousands more arrived throughout Saturday, jamming hotels, restaurants and clubs, and additional busloads will make the two-hour trip from Albertville early today for the 12:15 p.m (local time) start of Alpine skiing's premier event.

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