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Sports review of the year

Messmer (left) and McMahon celebrate an amazing start to the Sydney Olympics

(Keystone)

With nine Olympic medals, underdog champions in football and ice hockey, and a third year at the top for Martina Hingis, 2000 had plenty of highlights to keep Swiss fans glowing. Mark Ledsom looks back at a great sporting start to the new Millennium.

The eyes of the world were on Sydney in September as the 27th Modern Olympics got underway. And almost incredibly it was towards the Swiss delegation that those eyes turned within the opening hours of the Games.

An explosive start saw Switzerland leap to the top of the early medal table, thanks to two fantastic performances in the women's triathlon.

The sport's Olympic debut was won by Brigitte McMahon, a 33-year old mother from canton Zug, with another Swiss triathlete, Magali Messmer, grabbing the bronze.

It was the start of a medal haul that would become Switzerland's largest Olympic tally in almost fifty years.

In fencing, the Swiss took two silver medals with another mother, Gianna Hablützel-Bürki leading the way. The 30-year-old from Basel came second in the women's individual épée contest before repeating the feat in the team event alongside Diana Romagnoli and the 15-year-old prodigy Sophie Lamon.

More silver medals were to follow for rower Xeno Müller, marksman Michel Ansermet, the Swiss showjumping team and mountain biker Barbara Blatter. A bronze was added by another mountain biker, Christoph Sauser.

There were disappointments too, of course, most notably for runner André Bucher, who finished the 800 metres final in fifth place despite coming to the Games with the world's fastest time of the year.

Critics of the delegation's overall effort also pointed out that the 2000 Games had seen the athletes unable to match the four gold medals won in Atlanta, with McMahon standing out as the only Swiss winner in Sydney.

But supporters argued that the increased medal tally reflected greater breadth in Swiss sport. The pressure will certainly be on the country's athletes in 2004 to improve yet further, both in terms of quantity and quality.

One of Sydney's notable absentees was the Swiss tennis star Martina Hingis. The world number one, who celebrated her 20th birthday this year, decided to skip the Olympics to concentrate on her busy schedule.

The decision appeared to pay off with Hingis enjoying a strong finish to the season, including her first ever win at her home tournament in Kloten. But despite ending the year at the top of the rankings for the third time in four years, the St Gallen player's achievements were overshadowed slightly by her inability to win a Grand Slam this season.

Roger Federer, Switzerland's rising star in men's tennis, also had a good run on home soil, reaching the final of Swiss indoors tournament in his native town Basel before going out to Sweden's Thomas Enqvist in a gripping five sets.

Home comforts were the only solace to be found in the cycling world this year. In June Oscar Camenzind became the first Swiss rider in six years to win the Tour de Suisse, while in August Laurent Dufaux won the one-day World Cup race in Zurich. On the international stage in general though it was a barren year for Swiss cyclists.

The darkest days of 2000 followed the deaths of two of the country's young sports stars. In January the promising snowboarder Daniel Lötscher was fatally injured after colliding with a pylon during a world cup competition in Leysin. He was 25.

Then in August came the shock news that Switzerland's world kickboxing champion, Andy Hug, had died suddenly after contracting a rare form of leukaemia. Emotional tributes were paid to the 35-year-old six-times world champion both in Switzerland and in his adopted home of Japan.

Switzerland also said goodbye in 2000 to two former football greats. Charly Antenen, the only Swiss footballer to represent the country in three World Cup finals, died in May at the age of 71. Five months earlier the country mourned the passing of Hannes Schmidhauser, who had not only captained the national side but had also gone on to enjoy a successful film career.

In contemporary football, the players of St Gallen made some history of their own in winning their first league championship title in 96 years. Led by young manager Marcel Koller and Ghanaian striker Charles Amoah, the side from east Switzerland then went on to take the scalp of English giants Chelsea in the UEFA Cup before going out in the second round to Bruges.

The domestic ice hockey season also produced surprise champions, after the Zurich Lions beat strong favourites Lugano in a six-match playoff final. The Lions had not won the Swiss league in almost forty years.

Internationally, Swiss ice hockey showed itself to be in good shape when Ralph Krueger took his team into the last eight of the World Championships for the third year in a row. Krueger was rewarded with a long-term contract while an unprecedented six Swiss players began the new season playing for North American sides.

Finally, in skiing, the year is ending the way it began with the Swiss professionals again desperately chasing the awesome Austrians. But after failing to win a single World Cup title in 2000, things are looking more hopeful for the Swiss in 2001.

Going into the New Year Switzerland's Michael von Grünigen leads the giant slalom standings, 64 points ahead of Austria's Hermann Maier. In the women's giant slalom, Sonja Nef is currently second just four points behind Sweden's Anja Paerson.

You can hear in more detail about the last year of sport, including interviews with the top Swiss stars, by clicking on the audio file below.

In the meantime, all the best for the New Year from the swissinfo sports desk.

by Mark Ledsom

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