Gathering of the World's Best

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Jan. 24, 2001 (FIS)--On Sunday January 28, the best skiers in the world will descend on St. Anton am Alberg, Austria, for the first alpine World Ski Championships of the 21st century.

First held in 1931, the World Championships are one of the most important and highly regarded events in the alpine calendar and are conducted every other year, before and after the winter Olympics.

This year, they are heating up to be the biggest and most spectacular yet.

President of the International Ski Federation (FIS), Gian-Franco Kasper, said these World Championships have attracted a record number of participants, despite the fact the federation has introduced severe qualification criteria.

"We have about 65 nations and 500 competitors this year, although it is up to the national associations which four skiers compete per event."

As well, he said, there were about 6,000 - 7,000 media personnel, including television, expected.

"This is the biggest event of the year. And in St. Anton, we are more or less going back into the heart of the Alps," Kasper said. " For me, St. Anton¿with Austria winning so much this year¿will be a real ski festival."

Back in 1931, in Muerren, Switzerland, there were only two men's and ladies' disciplines contested at the World Championships: the downhill and slalom.

Then, it was Swizterland who dominated the men's competition in front of a home crowd, with David Zogg bringing home gold in the slalom and Walter Prager gold in the downhill. Meanwhile, Great Britain was triumphing in the ladies' races with Esme Mackinnon winning both the downhill and the slalom races.

At the last World Championships in Vail, Colorado, in 1999, both the men's and ladies' slaloms were surprise wins. Little known Kalle Palander won the men's, giving Finland their first ever World Championship gold in an alpine event, while Zali Steggal of Australia took the ladies'.

But this year it is unlikely there will any surprises in the slalom. With the Austrians dominating the World Cup events this season with the likes of three-times winner Benjamin Raich, Heinz Schilchegger and Mario Matt, the title is sure to go to the host nation. And in the ladies', the undoubted favourite is Janica Kostelic of Croatia ¿ winner of every World Cup slalom race this season.

In the downhill, Herman Maier of Austria holds the title and he is expected to retain it for another two years while a fierce battle will be fought between Renate Goetschl of Austria and Isolde Kostner of Italy, for the ladies' title.

In 1932, the combined event was added to the agenda, with Switzerland taking the honours in both the men's and ladies' inaugural event. The current title holders are Norwegian Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Sweden's Pernilla Wiberg. The Norwegian is in for a chance to retain his title but he will face stiff competition from teammate and long-time friend Lasse Kjus. Kostelic is looking strong for the ladies' medal.

Since 1932, the super-G and giant slalom have come on board. In 1950, the first giant slalom World Championship competition was raced and won by Italian Zeno Colo for the men, and Dagmar Rom of Austria for the women.

The current giant slalom title holders are Kjus and Alexandra Meissnitzer of Austria. In the men's race this year, the battle is likely to come down to two racers: Maier and Michael von Gruenigen of Switzerland. In the ladies' race, Sonja Nef of Switzerland is favourite to take the title home.

The super-G was added to the calendar in 1987, when the first champions were both Swiss: the legendary Pirmin Zirbriggen took the men's event, while Maria Walliser claimed the ladies'.

In 1999, in Vail, Kjus and Maier made World Championship history when they tied for first in the super-G. This year, Maier is certainly favorite to take the title but once again Norway is likely to provide him with some tough competition. Not to mention his own teammates.

The ladies' super-G title holder is Meissnitzer bbut after a year off due to injury she has not made her mark this season. Instead, France looks to take the title home, courtesy of Regine Cavagnoud who has had a storming season so far in this discipline. But Renate Goetschl and Michaela Dorfmeister of Austria will be putting the pressure on.

Without a doubt, there will be some superb skiing over12 days at the 2001 Championships in St. Anton. And with 12 races to be run and ten World Championship titles to be won, the competition will be fierce.

For more news from the world of skiing, log onto the FIS homepage at http://www.fis-ski.com/

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