February 5, 2006

All eyes on maverick Miller

SESTRIERE, Italy (Reuters) - Bode Miller will be the Alpine ski racer to watch at the Turin Olympics, whatever he does on or off the course.

Despite a relatively poor season ahead of the Games, the American outgoing World Cup champion has remained in the headlines with a series of controversies.

His all-or-nothing style will make him compulsive viewing in all five men's events in the Alpine resort of Sestriere.

Miller, who last year became the first American in 22 years to win the overall World Cup, has won only one race this season, a giant slalom early in December, and has failed to finish five of the seven slalom races.

He skipped World Cup races in Germany to take a golfing break in Dubai in the run-up to the Games where he will hope to improve on his two silver medals of four years ago.

Always a maverick, Miller has particularly upset ski officials this season by questioning the banning of all performance-enhancing drugs in the sport and by admitting that nights out partying had sometimes left him bleary-eyed at the start of races.

As ever, Austrians are the more conventional favorites with Fritz Strobl defending his downhill title despite a broken hand, Michael Walchhofer and Hermann Maier also chasing speed medals and World Cup leader Benjamin Raich looking a safe prospect in the giant slalom and slalom.

Austria's women, too, have a strong team which mixes experience and youth.

Michaela Dorfmeister, in her final season at the age of 32, appears unfazed by a high-speed near miss with a stray course worker two weeks ago and, after already wrapping up the 2006 downhill World Cup, will be after the Olympic gold that has long eluded her.


Renate Goetschl, 30, hit peak form with a downhill win at Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, last weekend (eds: Jan 28) while Nicole Hosp, 22, won the giant slalom the following day and Marlies Schild had three slalom wins within a fortnight earlier in the season.

To get to the top of the Olympic podium though, the Austrians must defeat Janica Kostelic who has much to defend.

The 24-year-old Croatian became the most successful Alpine skier at a single Olympics with three golds and a silver in Salt Lake City, despite a series of knee operations just months earlier and she thrives on the big stage.

Despite suffering from a high temperature, Kostelic won the last World Cup race before the Games, a slalom in Ofterschwang, Germany, on Sunday.

Sweden's World Cup champion Anja Paerson has won a super-G, a downhill and two giant slaloms since late December and, like Kostelic, can take medals in all the Olympic events.

One rival for the giant slalom title will be Spain's Maria Jose Rienda Contreras, a late bloomer at 30, who shared the top spot on the podium with Paerson on Saturday, after a solo win the previous day.

Finland's Tanja Poutiainen has had a mediocre season since winning the slalom and giant slalom World Cups last season but her compatriot Kalle Palander, a former world champion, hit winning form in the men's slalom in Schladming last month.

Daron Rahlves shares American hopes with Miller after three downhill wins this season, including the Lauberhorn race in Wengen, and Ted Ligety has had three podium appearances in slalom.

The American women's team have also had a good run-in to the Games, with Julia Mancuso collecting two podium finishes and Lindsey Kildow earning two.

Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt, 34 years old, still regularly makes the podium and could increase his record tally of 19 medals from the Olympics and world championships.

For local fans, the men's slalom is the most eagerly awaited race. Italian Giorgio Rocca won five World Cup slaloms in succession this season, prompting a rush for tickets for the Olympic event.

Italians hope he can reproduce his form in Sestriere and give the country its first slalom title since 1988 and the heyday of national hero Alberto Tomba, who frequently provides moral support for his compatriot.