Cup only half full |

Cup only half full

Jon Maletz

World Cup weekend is finally upon us. Soon loud- talking, horn- wearing Swedes and the world’s fastest female skiers will descend on Aspen. I can already hear the cowbells clanging.

While competition isn’t under way until Saturday morning, the intriguing storylines have already started to filter in. Here are a few that pique my interest:

– Does this year’s Winternatonal lack the star quality necessary to garner much interest from those outside Europe? A few high- profile names will be absent from the leaderboard come race day, which bodes well for the rest of the field. It does, however, take away much of the luster from the competition.

Three-time World Cup overall cham­pion Janica Kostelic announced earlier this year that she’s sitting out this season. The 24-year-old, one of skiing’s most charismatic and dominating superstars, is battling knee, back and thyroid ailments, according to published reports.

Kostelic, who won a record fourth gold medal in February’s Winter Olympics in Turin, became a familiar fixture on the podium in Aspen last year. Her two top-5 finishes ” silver in slalom and fourth in giant slalom ” were one more than the entire U.S. Ski Team.

Austria’s Michaela Dorfmeister will also be absent. The 32-year-old retired after a 2006 season in which she won Olympic gold in both super G and down­hill.

Dorfmeister, who was spurred on by perhaps the sport’s most loyal ” and possibly neurotic ” fans, was second in super G and fifth in giant slalom last year on Ajax.

– What will the race-day atmosphere be like now that the notoriously and reli­giously devoted fans of high-profile rac­ers won’t make the trip to Aspen?

Who will step in to generate the same type of enthusiasm as Kostelic’s rabid, checker-clad Croat supporters? Who will pack the grandstands now that the faith­ful from Buck Hill and around the U.S. won’t make the pilgrimage to “Support the Koz,” retired American racer Kristina Koznick?

And without the sounds and encour­agement generated by the horn blowing and wooden noisemakers of Austria’s “Team Michi Fan Club,” will this week­end’s races sound more like a golf match than a World Cup race?

If that happens, will we be forced to listen to “Uncle E’s” color commentary?

God Help us. I’d stash some earplugs in your jacket pocket.

– Will the Americans show up in this, their only competition of the season in the U.S.?

We waited and anticipated last December when the U.S. caravan rolled into town, fresh off an admirable effort in Lake Louise. And then?

There was little to cheer about. The U.S. women, many of whom insinuated they felt added pressure to succeed here, left town after notching just one top-5 victory ” Kirsten Clark’s fifth-place in super G. The height of the team’s disa­pointment came in slalom, where only three U.S. racers qualified for a second run. Koznick was 14th and Julia Mancu­so, who visibly struggled to stay on course as she meandered through the tight gates, took 19th. And Vail’s Lindsey Kildow nearly missed a gate on her sec­ond run en route to finishing last.

Of the four other Americans in the field, two failed to complete their first runs. Grant Sterling crashed 10 seconds in.

Mancuso, who finished 12th in giant slalom ” the event in which she won gold in Turin ” was the top American finisher by a large margin. Seven of the 10 U.S. skiers entered in the discpline didn’t crack the top 30. Clark, who sailed wide of a gate with the finish line in sight, was one of three who were disqual­ified.

The Americans are strongest in the speed events. The International Ski Fed­eration’s decision to drop super G from the Winternational’s schedule, leaving just two technical events on the docket, didn’t do the hometown team any favors.

– The average American doesn’t know Katherin Zettel from the bagger at Clark’s Market. It’s understandable. How is anyone expected to embrace ski racing in this country when it receives little to no publicity?

The sport’s popularity suffers here in the states largely because the majority of the World Cup season plays out overseas. But television networks aren’t helping matters. Those wishing to tune in to watch this weekend’s races may have some trouble. Sunday’s slalom will be broadcast at 3 p.m. on Versus ( formerly Outdoor Life Network). Apparently ski racing takes a back seat to poker and darts, which air on high-profile networks like ESPN. That makes sense; an open­ended straight draw makes for more scin­tillating television than Kildow charging downhill with reckless abandon.

Friday’s races will air on NBC, but, for all you giant slalom fans out there, you’ll have to bide your time for a full week. Coverage won’t be aired until Dec. 3 at 11 a.m. Good luck trying to compete with the NFL.

– Will you be in the stands this week­end?

The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.

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