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Ask your average American who Kirsten Clark is, and they’ll likely guess she’s a contestant on
—not the 2003 World Championships super G silver medalist. Ask any Croatian who Janica Kostelic is, and you just might get a kick in the
(that’s Croatian for
), because Kostelic is, unequivocally, Croatia’s Snow Queen.
Sure, every Eastern European country loves its sports heroes (Romania had Nadia Comaneci, Czechoslovakia had Ivan Lendl), but war-scarred Croatia (population 4.5 million) has taken spectator patriotism to new levels. After Kostelic, now 23, racked up three golds and a silver at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, more than 100,000 fans swarmed downtown Zagreb to welcome her home. And this season, when Kostelic returns to the circuit (she was sidelined for most of 2004 with knee injuries) to race in Croatia’s first-ever World Cup event, her native city of Zagreb (population one million) is sure to host the event in style. The Croatians have already spent 16.5 million U.S. dollars sprucing up the women’s slalom course at Sljeme for the January 20 event. Fans shut out by the 30,000-ticket limit will cram into the city square, snack on moussaka, drink Karlovacko, and watch their Snow Queen compete on a giant screen.
“The crowds will be crazy with Janica, says American slalom ace Sarah Schleper, who at one race watched Croatian fans hurl snowballs at Sweden’s Anja Paerson, one of Kostelic’s rivals. “Hopefully they can display more sportsmanlike conduct—but who knows what will happen if the Great Croatian Hope gets beat up on her home turf.