By Martyn Herman
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Austrian veteran Mario Matt clocked the fastest time in the first run of the Olympic men's slalom on Saturday, while compatriot and favorite Marcel Hirscher struggled for pace.
Matt, 34, was 0.45 seconds quicker than Sweden's Andre Myhrer and 0.75 ahead of Italian Stefano Gross and another Swede Mattias Hargin going into the second leg that will bring the curtain down on the Alpine skiing program at Rosa Khutor.
"I'm in the lead so everything worked perfectly for me so far," said Matt. "Of course this is good, now I just have to concentrate on the skiing for the second run."
Hirscher, leader of the World Cup standings in slalom, was just about in touch for a podium place but his hopes of gold appear to have gone after going 1.28 seconds slower than Matt.
"That's my personal maximum today in these conditions because I made no mistakes," the 24-year-old Hirscher said of the soft snow that chopped up throughout the first leg.
American Ted Ligety, winner of the giant slalom, was well-placed for a medal in sixth, 0.86 off the lead, while Frenchman Jean Baptiste-Grange was around a tenth quicker in fifth.
Germany's Felix Neureuther, whose preparations for the Games were disrupted after hurting his neck in a car crash on the way to the airport, was seventh.
"I made quite a big mistake that cost me a lot speed," he said. "The rest was pretty solid. It's absolutely still possible for the second run."
Matt, world champion in 2001 and 2007, was the third man down the course and produced a spotless run.
The injury-prone Austrian, once nicknamed Super Mario, is appearing at his first Olympics since 2006 in Turin where he skied out in his first run.
The first run of Saturday's slalom contained 117 skiers, including some from non-traditional skiing powers such Mexico and the Cayman Islands.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)