By Martyn Herman
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - World champion Ted Ligety raised hopes of a first American Alpine skiing gold medal at the Sochi Olympics with a lightning fast first run in the men's giant slalom on Wednesday.
The 29-year-old will start the second leg later on Wednesday with a healthy 0.93 second advantage over Czech Ondrej Bank after smoothly negotiating the 57 gates on a Rosa Khutor mountain sporting a fresh layer of overnight snow.
Italian Davide Simoncelli was 1.27 seconds down with Frenchman Thomas Fanara and Austrian downhill winner Matthias Mayer both 1.33 seconds slower than American Ligety.
Ligety came to the Games as the United States' big medal hope in the men's events after his three golds at last year's world championships but flopped in the super combined and super-G.
The four-times overall World Cup giant slalom champion was in a class of his own on Wednesday, however, as he clocked one minute 21.08 seconds, seemingly with something to spare.
"It was okay," Ligety told reporters. "Sometimes my fastest runs don't always feel like they are that fast.
"It's 50 percent done but having this buffer definitely allows you not to take super risks in the second run."
The only skier to get anywhere near Ligety's time was Germany's Stefan Luitz, who crossed the line on one ski a half-second down but was later disqualified for straddling the final gate of his run.
Luitz's team mate Felix Neureuther, despite still suffering pain from the neck injury he sustained in a car crash on the way to Munich airport last Friday, is well placed in a pack of skiers looking for a podium place.
"I think I'm in a very good position," Neureuther, who was eighth on the time sheets, told reporters. "Ligety is another level, as pretty much always, you have to accept that.
Bank said he was surprised to be the closest to Ligety.
"It was pretty wild," he said.
"I tried to be aggressive and attack and it's a pretty nice time. I'm surprised. I was hoping to be close but second?"
Ligety was seen radioing course data back up to team mate Bode Miller, but whatever he said had little effect as Miller was 2.56 seconds off the pace.
The 36-year-old Miller became the oldest Alpine skier to win an Olympic medal on Sunday when he was third in the super-G.
(Additional reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Peter Rutherford)