Kostner Pressured to Uplift Women's Circuit, Italian skiing

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Val D'Isere, France Dec. 9 (AP by, Erica Bulman)--Italian skier Isolde Kostner is burdened by high expectations.

Not her own, mind you, but everybody's around her.

Pressured to win on the World Cup circuit in order to supply the women's field with a dominant figure, Kostner is also being pressured back home to lift Italian skiing out of the doldrums.

Having become the only woman to win two races this season, it is hoped Kostner will help spark some interest in the sport, which has a serious lack of celebrities.

Since losing Austrian World Cup overall, super-G and giant slalom champion Alexandra Meissnitzer to season-ending torn ligaments, American Picabo Street to a prolonged injury break and Germany's Katja Seizinger to retirement, the sport has been searching for stars.

But if the women's World Cup circuit has been worried about its shortage of celebrities, Italian skiing is even more desperate for a prima donna of its own.

The sport has particularly suffered in Italy, where interest _ as well as funding _ dropped dramatically after the retirement of Alberto Tomba. The sport slipped into further disarray when Deborah Compagnoni ended her career to spend time with Italian Alessandro Benetton, heir to the Benetton fortune.

``Deborah was always in the front,'' said Kostner, the winner of 10 World Cup downhills. ``It was useful to have someone carry the burden of all the attention on the team.

``Now that's she's gone, the attention is more on me,'' Kostner admitted. ``But at least it's not all new to me. Deborah was only racing in the technical events, and I've always had a bit of attention in the speed events.''

The burden to perform doubled after Kostner convinced the Italian Ski Federation to allow her to hire away the women's team technical coach for her own exclusive use _ at the ISF's cost.

After 10 days of tough negotiations with the ISF last May, Kostner was permitted to acquire Valerio Ghirardi as her own personal trainer.

The move has paid off, with Kostner winning the season's first downhill, placing second in the super-G in Lake Louise 11 days ago, and then winning Wednesday's super-G.

Her victory was also a blessing for the women's circuit, who had no dominant skier coming into the weekend's event at the historic French resort.

While Hermann Maier has reigned over the men's World Cup circuit, winning five of the six races he's entered this season, the women's seven previous races produced seven different winners.

``There is no super champion who is dominating the women's field this season,'' Kostner said. ``It's very close.

``I'm at a bit of a disadvantage since many of the girls race in all four disciplines and I race mostly in the speed events,'' she said. ``Staying in the lead will be tough.''

As a result of the tight competition, the overall lead has been passed around repeatedly.

Last weekend in Serre Chevalier, the lead changed hands three time in as many days.

Kostner arrived at Serre Chevalier leading the standings, but was soon overtaken by Austria's Michaela Dorfmeister, the winner of Saturday's giant slalom.

A day later, after winning Sunday's slalom, 17-year-old Croat sensation Janica Kostelic took her turn at the top of the rankings.

But Kostner's victory on Wednesday once again vaulted her to the top of the rankings, where she sits with 310 points.

``I think there is a handful of girls who can really be in there and make a difference,'' said Germany's Hilde Gerg, who finished second in Wednesday's super-G and leads the discipline standings with Kostner. ``It won't be enough to ski in just two disciplines.

Copyright © 1999 The Associated Press