Alpine skiing-Can Austria tighten its grip on the slopes at the Beijing Games?

LONDON, Jan 28 (Reuters) – Austria, the most successful ski nation of all time, is under pressure to prove it still has what it takes to dominate at the Beijing Olympics.

Austria’s record at the Winter Olympics is untouchable. Its skiers have won 121 alpine medals since the birth of the Winter Games, almost twice as many as the second most successful nation, Switzerland.

But this year, everything is different. Test events scheduled in China’s mountainous Yanqing region had to be canceled last year due to COVID-19 and the course will not open for training until February 3, three days before the start of the medal events.

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“We have very little information (on the pitch) because none of us have been there yet,” Austrian men’s head coach Andreas Puelacher said.

“It adds suspense and probably difficulty – for every country, not just for us,” Puelacher said.

The coronavirus has also hit the Austrians, with world super-G and downhill champion Vincent Kriechmayr and slalom skiers Katharina Truppe, Michael Matt and Manuel Feller testing positive less than a month before the start of the Games.

But there is no respite for the nation that produced skiers like Toni Sailer, who won three Olympic gold medals in 1956, including an all-Austrian podium. Austria would again paint the Olympic podiums exclusively in red and white in 1964 and 2006.

In the 1970s, it is difficult to find a season not won by Franz Klammer and Annemarie Moser-Proell. On the eve of the new millennium, Hermann ‘The Herminator’ Maier emerged to win four World Cup seasons, three World Championships and two Olympic gold medals.

More recently, Benjamin Raich, Marcel Hirscher and Anna Veith have become skiing megastars.

In sprint racing, Kriechmayr, Matthias Mayer – Olympic gold medalist in super-G and downhill – Feller and Raphael Haaser have every reason to hope for medals in Beijing after their performances this season.

In the combined event, Marco Schwarz’s world championship gold last year could pave the way for Austria to retain the Olympic title in the discipline after Hirscher’s gold in Pyeongchang.

Johannes Strolz, son of 1988 Olympic combined champion Hubert Strolz, lost his place in the Austrian team last year but came back with a vengeance, claiming his first World Cup victory in slalom this year.

On the women’s side, American Mikaela Shiffrin, Italian Sofia Goggia and Slovak Petra Vlhova will face off, but Goggia suffered a knee injury shortly before Beijing, leaving her participation in the Games on hold.

World slalom champion Katharina Liensberger and Mirjam Puchner have already been on the podium more than once for Austria this season.

Liensberger, however, is recovering from the coronavirus and only reached 21st place in the last pre-Beijing race at Schladming.

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Reporting by Shadia Nasralla; edited by Clare Fallon

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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