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TORINO: Alpine: Struggling Swiss look for golden jump-start in Italian Alps

TORINO: Alpine: Struggling Swiss look for golden jump-start in Italian Alps{mosimage}SESTRIERE, Italy – Switzerland has Roger Federer in tennis and the America’s Cup in sailing, and even the soccer team is on the rise. The national sport, however, is in crisis.

The once-powerful Swiss ski team left last season’s World Championships empty handed for the first time in four decades, and Swiss men haven’t won a race in two seasons.

The pressure is on for a turnaround in the mountains above Torino, but four years after winning only a bronze medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics, team officials are hardly optimistic.

”Expectations are not very high. We have to be realistic,” said Marc Waelti, a Swiss federation spokesman. ”Of course, we want to win one or two medals, but it will be very difficult for us.”

Things may be looking up a little. On Friday, Bruno Kernen placed third during the second day of training ahead of Sunday’s downhill. Kernen won the downhill at the 1997 World Championships here.

”This is a new race and a new chance for us,” said Silvan Zurbriggen, one of Switzerland’s top young skiers and a distant relative of Swiss legend Pirmin Zurbriggen.

Silvan Zurbriggen was 43rd among 88 finishers Friday. His better event is slalom, making him an outside threat in the combined.

The team’s biggest hopes are veterans Kernen and Didier Defago.

Defago was set to step atop the podium after clocking the fastest time in a combined race in Val d’Isere, France, in December but was disqualified for an equipment infringement.

”I don’t even think about it anymore,” Defago said of the team’s dry spell. ”We just do what we have to do.”

Defago tied for fourth in a World Cup combined race in Chamonix, France, earlier this month, the final men’s race before the Olympics, and Nadia Styger won a women’s super G in Aspen, Colorado, in December.

Sonja Nef, who won a giant slalom bronze at the 2002 Olympics, will miss these Games due to left hip pain.

The team has no dominant skiers like in the days of Pirmin Zurbriggen, Vreni Schneider or Erika Hess.

”All teams have ups and downs,” said Christian Knauth, International Ski Federation communications director. ”At the moment, they’re not in good shape. But they are coming.”

Though based in Switzerland, Knauth said the federation doesn’t mind seeing a country with a long tradition struggle.

”Other teams like Finland and Spain have started to do well, we have more winners now from different countries,” he said. ”It’s not good for Switzerland, but it’s good for skiing.”

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