Skiers flop in centenary year
Switzerland’s Alpine skiers have experienced one of their worst starts to a World Cup season as the national ski federation celebrates its centenary.
The men's team have failed to record a single podium finish, prompting criticism from all sides and calls from the media for the dismissal of the team coach.
The failure of Switzerland’s male ski stars to make the top three has been blamed variously on ski suit design, bad mental preparation, self-imposed pressure, public expectation and plain bad luck.
The low point was reached last weekend when Ambrosi Hoffmann - the best Swiss racer in the giant slalom in the Austrian resort of Flachau - finished 25th, nearly three seconds behind the winner.
In fact, the Swiss have only managed one podium finish so far this season: Sonja Nef finishing second in a slalom race last November.
The high hopes for the country's skiers in the run-up to the season have all but melted away.
"The athletes must do everything they can to get as many wins as possible during this centenary year," exhorted Jean-Daniel Mudry, director of the Swiss ski federation, Swiss-Ski, during a pre-season press conference in November.
The media backlash was not unexpected, but it has been harsh. The “Blick” tabloid has been leading calls for the dismissal of Karl Frehsner, the head of the men’s Alpine team.
Switzerland’s most widely read newspaper lays the blame for the lack of success squarely on the Austrian’s shoulders.
Sports editor Marcel Siegenthaler told swissinfo the head coach had a lot to answer for.
“Karl Frehsner is a man who likes to control everything and expects total obedience,” he said.
The journalist reckons that part of the problem is that 65-year-old Frehsner, who ran the men’s team successfully from 1976 to 1991, is a throwback to days gone by.
“He has an old-fashioned way of running his team, and you can’t do that nowadays.”
Frehsner’s biggest shortcoming, according to Siegenthaler, is that the trainer doesn’t know how to motivate his charges and doesn’t treat them as adults.
Former ski stars Pirmin Zurbriggen and Joël Gaspoz have criticised the Swiss team’s training techniques.
Zurbriggen told “Le Temps” newspaper that the Frehsner system was far too rigid, adding that a coach’s job was to support and motivate a skier.
Gaspoz says there is also far too much emphasis on technique. “Skiers who won’t follow orders are simply left out of the team.”
But Swiss-Ski insists it isn’t about to fire anyone.
“We’re not happy with the results, but we have begun to talk with the team about what’s needed to get back on the podium,” said Swiss-Ski spokesman Marc Wälti.
Grooming future winners
Louis Monney, a former trainer with the Swiss team, says one of the real problems faced by the men’s ski team is the small number of top-level athletes within its ranks.
“The number of skiers who can get a result in more than one event is very limited,” he said.
Didier Bonvin, who is in charge of up-and-coming talents at Swiss-Ski, believes the lack of competitive skiers is down to the federation's failure to plan for the long term.
"At the end of the 1980s and during the early 1990s, we totally forgot to prepare a new generation of skiers," he told swissinfo. "The trainers, the bosses and the sponsors were focused on the team's stars."
Wälti admits the climb back to the top will take some time. “We have already begun to reorganise our structures at different levels to groom more competitive skiers,” he said.
Monney agrees that the federation’s restructuring is a step in the right direction, but he says more has to be done.
“The federation only takes care of skiers from the age of 14 onwards,” he said. “It needs to coordinate its efforts with the clubs that start working with children who are just eight years old.”
Despite all the problems, improvement could be just a few years down the road.
Swiss junior teams have recorded their best results ever at the world championships over the past three years.
swissinfo, Scott Capper
No member of the Swiss men's ski team has finished among the first three since the begining of the World Cup season.
The women have managed one second place, thanks to Sonja Nef in the Park City slalom.
The first Swiss skier in the men's overall World Cup ranking is Didier Cuche, who is down in 18th position.
Sonja Nef has done slightly better and is currently 12th in the women's ranking.
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