Austria look to Raich to stave off crisis

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By Alan Baldwin

WHISTLER (Reuters) - Austria looked to reigning champion Benjamin Raich on Saturday to grab a medal in the final slalom and stave off their worst Olympic performance for 74 years in men's Alpine skiing.

Raich was third after a first run in atrocious conditions, 0.54 seconds behind Italian leader Giuliano Razzoli, with several leading contenders skiing out in the darkening gloom and sleet.

Slovenian Mitja Valencic was in second place, 0.43 off Razzoli's time, with Croatian Ivica Kostelic chasing Raich in fourth.

The non-finishers included Bode Miller, whose bid for a record fourth medal in two weeks on the Whistler slopes ended when he straddled a gate, and U.S. team mate Ted Ligety.

The once-mighty Austrian men who swept the slalom podium four years ago in Turin have yet to win a medal in Alpine skiing here.

Failure to do so in the slalom would be their first blank since the sport was introduced to the Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in 1936.

While Raich stepped up to the mark from third place, his compatriots again fell short.

Manfred Pranger crashed out, landing hard on his back, while Marcel Hirscher was in ninth place with 1.13 to make up and Reinfried Herbst -- silver medalist in Turin -- back in 12th.

Razzoli, who won a World Cup slalom in Zagreb last month, timed it right.

"I really enjoyed it all, I've got to attack now and give my all," he said.

Valencic, who could be Slovenia's first gold medalist in Vancouver, was wary of the threat from Raich.

"I've just got to go full gas, all-out attack," he said. "These guys are too good to do anything else."

(additional reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Miles Evans)