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Olympic trials make boarders cross

Ueli Kestenholz is not impressed by the qualifying rules Keystone

Switzerland's snowboarding stars begin their battle for Winter Olympic places this weekend when they take on some lesser-known rivals - and a controversial qualifying system.

As a nation, the Swiss riders have already earned themselves 12 places at the biggest global event in winter sport. Now, though, the individual team members must battle it out against each other in a qualifying system that has angered some of the more experienced athletes.

The riders, including Nagano medallists Gian Simmen and Ueli Kestenholz, have been given just two chances to prove themselves, first in Laax this weekend and then in Grindelwald seven days later.


“The hard thing is having to fight for a place which I myself earned,” rising half-pipe star Fabienne Reuteler complained to swissinfo after winning the Swiss team its only berth in the freestyle discipline.

The qualifying process, like much else in snowboarding, has been further complicated by the presence of two world governing bodies, the ISF (International Snowboarding Federation) and FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski).

Swiss snowboarders have on the whole remained loyal to the original body, the ISF, but have had to compete on the FIS tour for Olympic places, since the International Olympic Committee only recognises the latter organisation for qualifying places.

“There are some people who have not been doing hardly any competition on the FIS tour who are now coming along to fight for one of the Olympic spots,” Reuteler points out.

“I think those people should just say from the start whether or not they’re going to compete for a place themselves or leave it.”

Slalom star Kestenholz, who won a bronze medal in Nagano four years ago, shares Reuteler’s concerns. The ISF champion is aiming for another medal in Salt Lake, but must first avoid a slip-up against his own compatriots.

“Not very good”

“The qualifying system we’re having to work with is not very good,” echoed the 26-year-old from Thun. “With just two races it’s not even sure that the best riders will make it (to the Olympics) because you only have to make a little mistake or break a binding (to miss out).”

“We said right from the start that we didn’t like the system,” Kestenholz added, “and even put forward our own proposal involving three races, but it seemed the association didn’t care too much about the opinions of the riders, which is something I don’t really understand.”

Olympic delegation leader Patric Berg told swissinfo he had some sympathy for the top riders, in particular because of the ongoing animosity between the two federations. However he insisted that the qualifying system was fair.

Strongest riders

“The two qualifying races will give us the chance to see who are the strongest riders at the moment,” Berg argued, “and that is what we are interested in – not just the riders who have been good in the past. Besides the system does allow current world champions a slightly easier path to qualifying.”

“We gave a statement to riders explaining that winning the places for Switzerland and then choosing the individuals to fill those places would be two separate things,” Berg continued. “Now they just have to deal with it.”

Clearly it will be in the best interests of both the Swiss association and its top riders if the big names manage to pull through and book their tickets to Utah. If any of the medal hopefuls are upset in Laax and Grindelwald, it seems unlikely that they’ll surrender their Olympic dream quietly.

by Mark Ledsom

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR