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Top skiers open their season in Finland

Silvan Zurbriggen (left) and Olivier Brand during a summer training session

(Keystone)

The Swiss ski team heads into the new World Cup season boosted by three medals at the Winter Olympic Games in Turin last February.

The Swiss are expected to do well again in the speed events and attention is focused on the world championships in Are, Sweden, in February 2007.

For the first time the Alpine World Cup campaign gets underway in Finland with the men's and women's slaloms. The traditional giant slaloms in Sölden, Austria, which usually kick off the season, had to be cancelled due to rain and warm temperatures.

It is the first time since 1933 that the Austrian mountain resort has been dropped from the circuit.

"Our time is now. We've trained a lot on glaciers and we're ready for the competition," said Martin Rufener, head coach of the Swiss men's team.

The first few races are unlikely to be the easiest for the Swiss. The slalom is their weak point, particularly after Sonja Nef, bronze-medal winner of the giant slalom at the 2002 Winter Olympics and one of Switzerland's most successful skiers over the past decade, announced her retirement.

The main objective of the four newcomers, Rabea Grand, Jessica Pünchera, Aïta Camastral and Sandra Gini, will be to try to qualify for some of the second heats of a race.

The men's team, with Daniel Albrecht, Marc Berthod and Sandra Gini's brother Marc, are hoping to do well and are counting on their leader, Silvan Zurbriggen. But the silver-medal winner at the 2003 St Moritz World Championships is currently struggling to find his best form.

The last Swiss victory in a World Cup slalom dates back to 1999 when Didier Plaschy won in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.

Speed

As in previous years, Switzerland holds out its best hopes for the speed disciplines - downhill and super-G - with Bruno Kernen, Ambrosi Hoffmann, Didier Défago and Didier Cuche.

Kernen and Hoffmann both clinched bronze at the Turin Olympics and Cuche is the last Swiss to win a World Cup race back in January 2004, when he won the Garmisch downhill in Germany.

"We have a very strong and compact team, and we are aiming for at least one win. And if the season starts successfully, we can set our targets higher," Rufener told swissinfo.

While the Swiss team is keen to improve on its results, all eyes are set on the February world championships in Are, Sweden.

"We have to work hard during the entire campaign to be ready for these races," he added.

In the women's team five racers could make it onto the winner's podium. Fränzi Aufdenblatten, Sylvianne Berthod, Catherine Borghi and Martina Schild, surprise silver medallist in Turin, are all concentrating on downhill, while Nadja Styger is the top Swiss in the super-G. She won two World Cup races last winter in Aspen and Hafjell.

swissinfo, Mathias Froidevaux

Alpine skiing

The Alpine World Cup circuit opens this weekend in Levi, Finland.

The first two events are the men's and women's slaloms.

The Swiss team comprises 23 athletes. They will travel next week to Nakiska, Canada to prepare for a series of races in Aspen, Lake Louise and Beaver Creek.

Later on the circuit will move back to Europe with men's races at the Swiss resorts of Adelboden and Wengen, and women's races at St Moritz.

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Snowboard and Nordic skiing

The NOKIA Snowboard FIS World Cup competitions began in Sölden, Austria, with Switzerland's Simon Schoch and Fränzi Kohli winning the opening races.

Switzerland will host the 2007 FIS Snowboard World Championships in Arosa for the very first time from January 13-20, 2007.

Switzerland's best hopes in the Nordic disciplines are traditionally ski jumping, cross-country and biathlon. The world championships will take place in Sapporo, Japan from February 22 to March 4, 2007

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