Boarders set sights on Salt Lake
With the international snowboarding season beginning on Friday, Switzerland's star riders spoke to swissinfo about their hopes for February's Winter Olympics.
Switzerland made an explosive entrance onto the world’s biggest sporting stage when snowboarding was given its Olympic debut at the Nagano Games four years ago, with Gian Simmen taking gold in the men’s halfpipe and Ueli Kestenholz grabbing a bronze in the giant slalom.
“People were really surprised when we got the medals in Nagano, so they’re definitely expecting more of us now,” Kestenholz told swissinfo.
“A gold medal in Salt Lake City will certainly be one of my goals after missing out by just 12 hundredths of a second last time,” added the 26-year-old from Thun. “But it’s a parallel discipline this year which means you have to put in nine perfect runs against your opponents to have any chance.”
Having arrived in Nagano as a virtual unknown, Simmen has since proven himself as one of the sport’s greatest talents and knows that the demands on him will be hugely greater than in 1998.
“Exactly four years ago I wasn’t even in the team because I had spent the summer serving in the army,” Simmen told swissinfo. “Then I managed to win a place but I didn’t expect anything. My goal was not to end up last, and I ended up finishing first so that will have to be my new goal this season!”
The snowboarding season kicks off this weekend in the French resort of Tignes, but already some boarding stars are heading home, because the event has been plagued by technical difficulties.
On Thursday organisers announced that the half-pipe final would have to be postponed until Monday because the mould used to make the giant ice curve was faulty. The replacement mould was then found to be too small.
Switzerland’s Simmen has already left the French Alps along with team mates Daniel Costandaché and Fabien Rohrer leaving fellow freestylers, Fabienne Reuteler and Manuela Pesko, still in Tignes.
But Switzerland’s Alpine competitors have stayed put with giant slalomer Kestenholz and the current ISF tour champion Steffi von Siebenthal still in the French resort.
This weekend’s action was meant to constitute the first stage of the FIS professional tour, with professional snowboarding still suffering from the existence of two conflicting international bodies – FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) and ISF (International Snowboard Federation).
While the vast majority of Swiss riders have remained loyal to the original organisers, the ISF, they have also had to compete on the FIS tour in order to win Olympic quota places, with the International Olympic Committee currently only recognising the FIS for qualification purposes.
The Swiss team are still sceptical of FIS, accusing the body of treating snowboarding as a lucrative sideshow to its main interest in skiing. However many of the Swiss riders felt compelled to take part in this weekend’s races, as part of their Olympic preparations.
“For us, it’s just about getting the riders in the top 16 of the FIS rankings,” explained Swiss team trainer Jürg Matti. “That ranking grants a start place in the first group in Salt Lake. Two top six finishes should be enough to achieve that.”
But given the technical problems of the half-pipe, if the Swiss riders do not return for Monday’s showdown, they may well have to forego this opportunity to climb up the FIS rankings.
The Swiss rider’s loyalty to the ISF tour is likely to be seriously tested this season. With financial problems plaguing the organisation, the ISF has not even been able to finalise its calendar for the coming season.
One thing that has been decided is the tour’s starting date and location – Laax on December 8-9. That event will also double up as the first of two Olympic selection meetings for the Swiss athletes.
by Mark Ledsom
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