PYEONGCHANG, South Korea, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Italians have been waiting 66 years for an Olympic gold medal in men's downhill but in Dominik Paris they have a genuine contender in Sunday's opening race on the Jeongseon course.
Paris is currently third in the World Cup downhill rankings after winning in Bormio in December and then picking up second place at Garmisch last month.
However, the 28-year-old from South Tyrol knows that while the professionals may value consistent displays on the World Cup circuit, for the fans back home, the Olympics is what truly generates excitement.
"I think in Italy, the Olympics is the biggest event, the World Cup is important too but I think for Italians the Olympics (is the one). It is different -- it's a national thing," he told Reuters on Thursday after his opening training run.
While Italy has enjoyed success in the technical events, most memorably slalom specialist Alberto Tomba's three gold medals between 1988 and 1992, the country has not seen a downhill victory since Zeno Colo's Oslo triumph in 1952.
Paris's team mate Christof Innerhofer came closer than anyone four years ago when he took silver in Sochi, finishing just 0.06 seconds behind winner Matthias Mayer.
Innerhofer, like the third Italian downhiller Peter Fill, a World Cup downhill winner in 2016 and 2017, is capable of delivering that one perfect run that can bring a lifetime of recognition.
"We have a good team, a small team but a fast one," Fill told Reuters.
While World Cup form often counts for little in the Olympics, where the more forgiving courses often create a very open field, Paris's recent performances suggest he is rightly considered one of the favourites.
"I hope I can do my best race here. I think it is going to be very close, its a short track and an easy track, so you have to ski very well and take the right line to get the speed for the finish," he said.
The Italian said he was hopeful that three days of training runs would harden and quicken the course in time for Sunday's highly anticipated race.
Paris was almost lost to the sport as a teenager when part-time work and a tendency to enjoy the nightlife with his friends distracted him from the grind of training.
At 18, though, he left his pals behind and spent 100 days working as a herdsman in the Swiss Alps with skiing as his only distraction.
He came back with renewed enthusiasm for his sport and a year later had broken through into Italy's World Cup squad. (Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by John O'Brien)