The 2010 Winter Olympics kick off in Vancouver on Friday with the largest Swiss delegation ever eager to see how it sizes up against the world’s best.
Downhill king Didier Cuche tells swissinfo.ch his broken thumb won’t slow him. Teammate Silvan Zurbriggen plans to ski like “crazy”. And Selina Gasparin, a 25-year-old border guard, will become the first Swiss woman to compete in the biathlon.
The opening ceremonies in Vancouver's BC Place will happen for the first time indoors, a good thing given the Pacific Northwest's fickle weather this week. Rain and fog thwarted ski training runs and now threaten to postpone the men's downhill race scheduled for Saturday. Olympic officials so far remain optimistic that conditions will improve enough to hold the event as planned.
Head coach Gian Gilli says his 146-member squad could possibly be the strongest team he’s worked with in the seven Olympics he has under his belt.
“This team is very strong and ambitious with many athletes already experienced Olympians,” he said. “We have many favourites on the starting line but our focus should be on giving the best performance and not on the medal. If the athletes do their best, the medals will come.”
The Swiss netted 14 medals at the Winter Games in Turin in 2006, the most successful showing ever for the Swiss. In Canada Gilli estimates the country will get ten to 12 medals, although the potential for more is “convincing”.
Gilli estimates the Swiss have their best shots in curling, bobsled, figure skating and numerous skiing events, including ski jumping and ski cross, a new Olympic sport.
“The female bobsled team is shockingly good,” he said. “The bob men are absolute top athletes. The women’s ice hockey team, with so much spirit and energy, is impressive.”
But in a winter-mad nation like Switzerland, many hopes are on the skiing events. While the Swiss typically don’t wow the world in the biathlon, Gilli says the lone Swiss competing in the event deserves plenty of respect. “Her dedication is impressive,” he said of Gasparin, who trains with a Pontresina-based club.
In the alpine events, it's a three-horse race between Switzerland, Austria and the US over who could capture the most gold medals. The Swiss men’s alpine team is certainly full of contenders with an all-star cast of ten of the country’s most successful racers.
Cuche is a favourite in the super-G and downhill. The 35-year-old from canton Neuchâtel has four podium finishes at World Cup races so far this season, including an impressive double win in the downhill and super-G in Kitzbühel, Austria. He then broke his thumb during a race just two weeks before the Games.
“I don’t have much pain now and I’m starting to be able to grab more,” he told swissinfo.ch. “I certainly hope to win a medal – the colour doesn’t matter – but I’m not going with the same goals after two wins in Kitzbühel. I have to bring it down a little.”
Teammate Zurbriggen, who also has four top-three finishes this season, says he plans to give it his all.
“I think I’ll go more crazily otherwise you win nothing,” he said. “You have this chance once every four years. It’s not a day to sleep.”
Just five Swiss women skiers will be racing this year, including Fabienne Suter who has two World Cup podium finishes so far this season. Other powerhouses like Lara Gut and Fränzi Aufdenblatten are out with injuries. In fact, no Swiss woman will race in the slalom.
“We lost six athletes with big potential to injuries and we are sad about that, but that is sport,” Gilli said. “Now we have to be motivated for the 146 athletes going to Vancouver.”
Gilli said the Swiss often to do well in new events, recalling underdog Swiss snowboarder Gian Simmen who aired his way to the gold medal during the first Olympic halfpipe competition in Nagano in 1998.
This year ski cross will make its Olympic debut, a sport that pits four skiers against each other as they race down a BMX-style course of jumps and curves. The Swiss are sending four men and four women competitors to this event at Cypress Mountain, just north of Vancouver.
Figure skating is also wildly popular for Olympic viewers and for 46 years the Swiss have competed in the pairs. This year the spotlight will fall on 16-year-old Anaïs Morand and Antoine Dorsaz, 20.
“Of course we don’t need to talk about Stéphan Lambiel,” Gilli added. “He’s a top favourite.”
In all the Swiss will be competing in 14 different sports and whether they meet the medal count or come home empty handed is irrelevant compared to the experience, Gilli said.
“They’ll never forget it,” he said, recalling the camaraderie and respect that develops between the world’s top athletes at the Olympics. “When I think about it, the hair stands up on the back of my neck.”
Tim Neville, swissinfo.ch
Swiss in Canada
The other Swiss in Canada
There are about 36,000 Swiss living in Canada today. As early as 1668 a group of Swiss settled in eastern Quebec and founded the “Canton of Fribourg Swiss”. Around 1750 about 400 Swiss protestants settled in Nova Scotia, a maritime province in southeast Canada, followed in 1850 by numerous farmers, merchants and workers.
After the Second World War many professors, engineers, skilled craftsmen, entrepreneurs and hospitality workers moved to Canada. A small town in Alberta bears the name Stettler, after Karl Stettler, a Bernese who founded a Swiss colony there in 1905. (Source: Swiss Olympic)
Swiss President Doris Leuthard will pay a visit to the Olympics from February 11-13 in time for the opening ceremonies.
Ueli Mauer, the sport minister, will then visit Vancouver toward the end of the Games from February 17-23.
Vancouver 2010 by the numbers
Operating budget: CAN$1.73 billion
Capital budget: CAN$580 million
Total tickets for sale: 1.6 million
Estimated attendance: 250,000
Estimated TV viewers: 3 billion
Vancouver population: 612,000
Whistler population: 10,000
Whistler population during Games: 55,000
Last Winter Games to be held in Canada: Calgary 1988