World championship gold medals for Andre Bucher, Michael von Grünigen and Sonja Nef were the clear highlights of a sporting year overshadowed in December by Silvano Beltrametti's tragic accident.This content was published on December 24, 2001 - 09:08
Sandwiched between the Sydney Olympics and next year's Winter Games in Salt Lake City, 2001 saw attention focus on a number of world championships at which, on the whole, Swiss athletes managed to excel themselves.
No less than 119 world and European championship medals were hung around the necks of the country's sportsmen and women in the past 12 months - a haul unmatched in ten years.
It is true that among that tally were medals won at such fringe sports as tug-of-war, casting and muzzle-loader rifle shooting, but the likes of Bucher, von Grünigen and Nef helped preserve Switzerland's sporting reputation as a big player among the smaller nations.
Encouragingly for February's Winter Olympics, Switzerland won an impressive 17 world championship medals in Olympic winter sport disciplines. A similar standard of performance in Salt Lake next year would see the Swiss far exceed their seven-medal haul from the Nagano Games four years ago.
Michael von Grünigen and Sonja Nef are set to carry the most expectations into the Olympic alpine skiing programme after their near-total domination of the giant slalom discipline in 2001.
Both skiers were deserved winners at the world championships in St Anton, while Nef also went on to clinch the overall giant slalom title on the FIS World Cup tour.
Tragedy for Beltrametti
In the Swiss ski team, though, 2001 will also be remembered as the year in which tragedy struck one of the country's brightest stars. Losing control of his skis during a December downhill race in Val d'Isere, 22-year-old Silvano Beltrametti suffered a terrible crash which has left him permanently paralysed from the chest down.
While Beltrametti's horrific injuries were of a scale incomparable with the normal highs and lows of sporting victories and defeats, the tragic curtailment of his career is likely to have a major impact on the hopes of the Swiss team in Salt Lake. Talented and uncompromising, the youngster from Graubünden was seen by many in the sport as a potential future champion.
Thankfully the majority of the country's sports stars did have the opportunity to realise their potential in 2001 with a further ten world championship medals being won by Swiss athletes in the Olympic summer disciplines.
Bucher and Federer shine
The most striking of those medal wins came in Edmonton with Andre Bucher taking gold at the world athletics championships - the first Swiss runner ever to do so.
Swiss tennis number one Roger Federer was another man hitting the sporting heights in 2001. After winning his first ATP singles title in Milan at the start of the season, Federer played a major role in helping the Swiss Davis Cup team overcome the USA in the tournament's opening round.
Although Federer's influence wasn't enough to see Switzerland past eventual winners France in round two, his individual performances on the tour continued to impress. Two further finals appearances, two semi-finals and a run to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon and the French Open all helped lift Federer up to 13th in the world rankings by the end of the year.
Federer's rapid rise up the rankings came in stark contrast to the slow fall of Martina Hingis. Having held the world number one spot since May 2000, Hingis was finally toppled by Jennifer Capriati in October following a run of poor results and injury problems for the Swiss star.
With Lindsay Davenport eventually leaping above Capriati to end the year on top, Hingis finished 2001 in an unaccustomed third place.
Sauber hot, footballers not
If Hingis and Federer underwent mixed fortunes in 2001, the same could also be said of the country's achievements in team sport.
The Sauber motor racing team enjoyed their best year to date on the Formula One Grand Prix circuit, finishing fourth behind the giants of Ferrari, McLaren and Williams. But there was disappointment for Switzerland's national football and ice hockey teams.
At the ice hockey world championships in Germany, Ralph Krueger's men failed to make it into the quarter-finals for the first time in four years. The team responded well at the start of the new season, though, winning the Deutschland Cup for the first ever time and reviving hopes of a successful Olympic year.
More work seems to be needed if the country's football team are to rediscover their past glories. Not helped by the resignation of coach Enzo Trossero near the end of their World Cup qualifying bid, Switzerland never came close to reaching next year's finals in Japan and South Korea.
by Mark Ledsom with agencies
Tomorrow: Giant steps - the Swiss year in skiing
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