World Cup ski races present a test for 2014 Games
With the likes of Lindsey Vonn and Aksel Lund Svindal coming to town, the Alpine skiing courses for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are about to get a very serious test.
Following three days of official training runs at the Rosa Kutor resort, World Cup racing begins with a men's downhill and super-combined Saturday and Sunday, followed by the same events for women a week later.
The competitions represent the first major test events for the Sochi Games, which will be held exactly two years later, from Feb. 7-23, 2014.
''We only give them one test so that it works,'' said men's World Cup director Gunter Hujara. ''If we gave them two chances, then the first would not achieve much.''
Sochi organizers are determined to show they will be ready.
''We are in good shape. We collected all necessary resources and we did our internal testing not to lose the face to the world,'' Sochi organizing committee chief Dmitry Chernyshenko said. ''What will be considered a funny moment or will be forgiven by others, hardly will be forgiven by us, by Russia.''
While there have been construction delays at the ski jumping and biathlon venues, the Alpine skiing venues were completed more than a year ago and hosted second-tier Europa Cup races last season.
The World Cup circuit represents a much more extensive test. Athletes, coaches, trainers, equipment personnel and media will be arriving in Sochi, a year-round resort on Russia's Black Sea coast, then escorted up to the Alpine venue in Krasnaya Polyana 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.
The races coincide with a visit from the International Olympic Committee's coordination commission, which is chaired by former French ski great Jean-Claude Killy. It's possible Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will attend.
For the skiers, though, this isn't just a test. World Cup points will be on the line.
''It's really important for me to utilize all three training runs, try to ski the best I can on every single day and get a feeling and an idea for what the course is like,'' said Vonn, who is on track for her fourth overall World Cup title.
For the American, these races will mark the first step in defending her downhill title from the 2010 Vancouver Games.
''All I need is one opportunity to see the hill and then I can still visualize it for the next two years and mentally get ready for that race,'' Vonn told The Associated Press. ''So I'm excited for a new course, I'm excited to be on the Olympic course and hopefully it's fun.''
After two fifth-place results at his home Olympics in Vancouver - plus a fourth-place finish at the 2006 Turin Games - downhill world champion Erik Guay of Canada is also hoping to find a comfort zone.
''Everyone's starting on a bit of a level playing field because nobody's been there before,'' Guay said. ''So if you start on the right foot and you have good results, it will just make it easier when you get there for the Olympics.''
There are three Olympic courses at the Rosa Khutor center: one for men's downhill, super-G and giant slalom; another for women's downhill, super-G and giant slalom; and a third track for men's and women's slalom.
Severe snow drifts during last year's Europa Cup races caused the men's downhill to be shortened and the super-G to be canceled, raising calls for better avalanche protection.
''It's always a lot of expectation, a lot of uncertainty in connection with a new organizer, but they have a huge organization and I'm quite confident they will be well prepared,'' said women's World Cup director Atle Skaardal. ''But as with any other organizer, they need a little help with the weather as well.''
After the Europa Cup events, organizers made changes to the upper section of the women's course, which had been labeled as too easy. That brings to mind the petition that racers signed because the women's course in San Sicario was too easy at the test event for the Turin Games.
''The course in Sochi is more technical than the one in San Sicario,'' Skaardal said. ''It's probably less technical than the one we had in Whistler for the 2010 Olympics, but what's easy and what's difficult is a different for everyone. Steep can be more difficult for some people and flat can be more difficult for others. ... I'm sure it will be a very interesting race.''
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in St. Moritz, Switzerland; Associated Press Writer Eric Willemsen in Innsbruck, Austria; and AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire in Chamonix, France, contributed to this report.