February 23, 2006

Pressure on Italy’s Alpine skier Rocca

By Alan Baldwin

SESTRIERE, Italy (Reuters) - Giorgio Rocca can redeem a
dismal Olympics for Italian Alpine skiers in Saturday's closing
men's slalom.

The 30-year-old is the clear favorite, leading the World
Cup slalom standings after five successive wins in the run-up
to the Turin Games, but he also carries a huge burden of

No Italian male skier has won an Olympic Alpine medal since
Alberto Tomba took silver in slalom in Lillehammer in 1994 and
the women have also drawn a blank at these Games with only
Friday's giant slalom remaining.

"There can be no half-measures, he must risk everything and
do the race of his life," said Italy's 1976 Olympic slalom
champion Piero Gros.

While the pressure is on Rocca to perform on home snow
before what is likely to be the biggest crowd of the Alpine
events, his main rivals will be more relaxed.

Austrian Benjamin Raich has already made sure of a gold
medal in the giant slalom while American Ted Ligety took his in

France's Jean-Pierre Vidal has nothing to prove after
winning the title at the Salt Lake City Games four years ago
but remains dangerous, winning the penultimate slalom before
the Games in Kitzbuehel.

American Bode Miller has some idea of what Rocca is going

The slalom represents the overall World Cup champion's last
chance to win a medal and justify the pre-Games hype around him
after four flops.

Although he took his last slalom victory on the Sestriere
hill, that was in December 2004.

The New Hampshire skier has struggled with the technical
discipline since then and his ankle provided the latest twist
to a sorry Olympic saga when he sprained it playing basketball
on Tuesday.

"The reports we are getting right now on where he's at and
the progress he's making are really positive, so we're thinking
he's going to be racing on Saturday," said U.S. Alpine director
Jesse Hunt.

Other candidates include 1999 world champion Kalle
Palander, who could become the first Finn to win an Olympic
Alpine medal and has been on the World Cup podium three times
in the discipline this season, including a victory in

Croatian Ivica Kostelic and Austria's Rainer Schoenfelder,
the combined silver and bronze medallists, and Germany's Alois
Vogl are also medal prospects.