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home : sports : regional April 16, 2014

1/7/2014 8:00:00 AM
Ski Roundup: Rules Could Keep Miller, Vonn Out of Sochi Races
AP Sports Writer

BORMIO, Italy -- Picture this for the Sochi Olympics: Bode Miller not allowed to defend his super-combined title, Lindsey Vonn limited to two events and other medal contenders held out of some of their favorite disciplines.

It's a scenario that top skiers are calling "absurd" but that could become a reality -- at least, that's how the big Alpine nations are interpreting the International Ski Federation's (FIS) complex new Olympic qualifying rules.

"We're waiting for FIS to clarify what it means and how it works," U.S. Ski Team men's head coach Sasha Rearick told The Associated Press on Monday -- three weeks before he has to name his team for Sochi. "It's critical that we have a fair solution and the top athletes can compete in the events they deserve to."

At issue are rules put in place last year to help smaller nations gain Olympic qualifying spots. In the fine print, the rules require skiers to finish a certain number of races in a discipline over last season and this season -- up to Jan. 19 -- to qualify for that event in Sochi. It's five races for the technical events of slalom and giant slalom, and three for the speed events of downhill, super-G and super-combined.

For the men's super-combined, those rules mean Miller, American world champion Ted Ligety and Austrian standout Benjamin Raich could all miss out. And the injured Vonn -- if she decides to compete in Sochi -- would be limited to just two events -- downhill and super-G.

Miller took off last season to let his surgically repaired left knee heal, Vonn has not raced much since crashing at last season's worlds and subsequent knee surgery. And while Ligety won gold medals in super-G, super-combined and giant slalom at last season's worlds, he did not finish the only two World Cup super-combined races last season.

Raich and fellow Austrians Anna Fenninger and Kathrin Zettel also don't have enough results in super-combi.

"It's stupid. It's not a good rule," said Peter Schroecksnadel, the president of the Austrian ski federation. "The strongest nations should be able to have the strongest athletes."

FIS men's World Cup director Gunter Hujara is promising a last-minute change.

"We will handle it at the end," he announced at a team captain's meeting Sunday. "There may be some adaptations done in the next few days. That's the only answer I can give for now."

FIS secretary general Sarah Lewis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The rules states that the previous results don't have to come in a World Cup race, but could also be in the lower-tier Europa Cup and other FIS events.

That's why the Austrian ski federation set up FIS super-combined races on home snow in Innerkrems last week -- one of which was won by Frederic Berthold, the son of Austria men's head coach Mathias Berthold. The Austrians were initially planning to enter Raich and other top athletes but then withdrew them, expecting a rule change.

Still, women's super-combis are scheduled for Innerkrems this week.

"It's crazy if you have to manipulate the system like that and implement races so you get starts," U.S. Alpine director Patrick Riml said.

With his gold-medal performance at the worlds as his only result, Ligety still needs two super-combined finishes to qualify. He could get one in the super-combi in Wengen, Switzerland, on Jan. 17, but would need one more.

"If they don't let the best guys race then it would be absurd," Ligety said. "It wouldn't be an event. ... They'll get it figured out. They'll make it so the best guys can race. It wouldn't make any sense otherwise."

Ligety, Miller, Vonn and the Austrians would still qualify for the Olympics in other events.

Another issue is the number of racers that the big teams can bring to Sochi. Usually, for teams like Austria, Switzerland and the U.S. it's 22. But for now, Austria and Switzerland are at 20 and the U.S. is only at 19.

But the numbers will go up once the small nations give back the spots they don't need -- or can't fill.

"The big nations should not wait for small nations to give spots back so we can have our top athletes performing," Riml said. "They have to rethink the whole system. It's not right."

MEN'S SLALOM: In Bormio, Italy, regaining his health from a series of injuries and falls, German skier Felix Neureuther announced himself as a medal contender for the Sochi Olympics by edging first-run leader Marcel Hirscher to win a World Cup slalom Monday night.

Then Neureuther used the spotlight to announce his opposition to Russia's human rights record and a recent law banning gay "propaganda" in the Olympic host country. He also criticized the choice of Pyeongchang, South Korea, to host the 2018 Winter Games.

"It's not right," Neureuther said. "The guys from the IOC should think about where to put the Olympic Games. It's not right to give the Olympic Games to places where they are giving the most money. It should be about the sport, in nations where there is passion."

While clearly disappointed not to win, Hirscher still gained ground on overall leader Aksel Lund Svindal, who doesn't often race slalom and sat this race out. Svindal's lead over Hirscher was cut from 195 to 115 points. American giant slalom specialist Ted Ligety is third overall, 297 points back.

It was a tough day for Ligety.

He bloodied his nose after a gate snapped up and hit him in the face during the pre-race warmup then was 14th in the opening run. In the second run, Ligety fell toward the bottom of the course. He got back up but finished 27th -- last place among those who finished both runs.

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