Tignes, France Nov. 1 (AP by Erica Bulman)--Having won almost everything last year, the Austrians have just one objective this season: the men's overall World Cup title.
Lasse Kjus of Norway won the overall World Cup crown last winter, the only title of any importance to escape the Austrians. They enjoyed one of their most successful seasons, winning 39 World Cup races and a staggering 13 world championship medals.
This season is the first since 1995 without a major international championship, and the Austrians are intent on dominating again.
``The Austrian team was stronger last season but watch out for us this year,'' said Hans Pum, head of the Austrian ski team.
The winners of the World Cup titles will be invited to the Vatican for Rome's Millennium Jubilee in April. And that's one more incentive for Hermann Maier.
``I should have won the overall last year,'' said Maier, the winner of 18 World Cup races. ``I could have if it hadn't been for my bad back. Because of that I couldn't compete at my best.''
Kjus ruled the World Cup circuit last year, winning a record five medals at the world championships in Vail, Colo.
But it was the flamboyant ``Herminator'' added two world championship titles to his double gold medal performance at the Nagano Olympics the previous year.
``My aim this season is to beat Hermann Maier as many times as I can,'' said Kjus, who also won the World Cup downhill title last season. ``I haven't had as much training as would be ideal because of a knee injury this summer. But I'm not afraid of failure, that's one of my strong points.''
Kjus and Maier are not the only two capable of capturing the overall crown.
Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt, runner-up in the overall race last year despite not a single victory, certainly will be among the leaders.
There is also Stefan Eberharter, the most successful Austrian skier after Maier, and Andreas Schifferer, Josef Strobl and Christian Mayer.
The Italian team's hopes lie with Kristian Ghedina, while the Swiss men will rely mainly on World Cup giant slalom champion Michael Von Gruenigen.
Other contenders include Finland's Kalle Palander, the slalom world champion, and Slovenia's Jure Kosir.
Last year, the Austrian women also were in command, winning every World Cup title. That supremacy most likely will continue.
Alexandra Meissnitzer, who took the overall, giant slalom and super-G titles last season, will have a smoother path this season, with two-time overall winner Katja Seizinger of Germany and three-time Olympic champion Deborah Compagnoni both retiring.
Germany's Martina Ertl and Hilde Gerg will carry the slack despite disappointing seasons last winter.
``We have to live with it and we still a lot of young skiers with a lot of potential coming up in the ranks,'' Germany's technical director Walter Vogel said.
Sweden's Pernilla Wiberg and Ylva Nowen, and Andrine Flemmen of Norway will also offer stiff competition.
Picabo Street, always a threat, is sidelined with severe leg injuries from a crash in Crans Montana, Switzerland, at the end of the 1997-1998 season.
``Picabo has not retired but she has not yet been given the clearance to ski again,'' said Marjan Cernigoj, coach of the U.S. women's team. ``We're hoping she'll begin to free-ski some time this year.''
Meissnitzer's main competition will come from teammates Renate Goetschl, the World Cup downhill champion, Michaela Dorfmeister and Anita Wachter.
The World Cup finals in mid-March in Bormio, Italy will feature five disciplines _ alpine, freestyle, cross-country skiing, Nordic combined and snowboard.
With no Olympics or world championships, the circuit will fill the gap with extra races in a schedule featuring 80 races.
Copyright © 1999 The Associated Press