Italian squad enjoys successful weekend

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The Independent Online

The Italian Ski Federation has discovered this weekend there is life after Alberto Tomba and Deborah Compagnoni.

The Italian Ski Federation has discovered this weekend there is life after Alberto Tomba and Deborah Compagnoni.

The Italian ski team enjoyed one of its most successful campaigns on the World Cup circuit this weekend since the retirement of its two super stars, with its women winning two-of-three races in St Moritz and Kristian Ghedina collecting a win and a second place in a double downhill on home snow in Val Gardena.

Isolde Kostner, the World Cup overall leader, claimed the first of two downhills Friday, while young Karen Putzer triumphed in Sunday's super-G.

Not to be overlooked was Alessandra Merlin's second place in the super-G behind Putzer.

The team's recent success could help rekindle interest in Italian skiing, which has suffered plunging TV ratings, dwindling sponsorship and a dramatic cut in funding since the departure of its two stars.

The flamboyant Tomba and the jet-setting Compagnoni had single-handedly fired interest in World Cup skiing, and their departure has left a void that has been hard for the Italian Ski Federation - and the World Cup - to fill.

"It's true that Alberto and Deborah were always in the spotlight," said Kostner, the winner of 10 World Cup downhills. "We feel it now that they are gone."

But currently in a strong position to win the overall World Cup title, Kostner could go a long way towards filling the gap by claiming the prestigious crown.

The Italian will have a chance to consolidate her overall lead after the Christmas break when the women move to Cortina d'Ampezzo, where Kostner has collected four of her eight World Cup victories.

Putzer can also be expected to continue on a strong note in Cortina, the site of her first World Cup podium finish, where she placed third in a super-G in 1998.

"This is only the first quarter of the season," explained Kostner, who has six career World Cup downhill victories, two super-G wins and has climbed the podium 32 times in all. "I don't want to start talking about the overall.

"But it is true I generally do well in Cortina."

If the weekend was a success for the Italian team, it left several other teams in dire straits.

Over four days, at least five skiers saw their season brought to an early end, falling victim to the unforgiving Corviglia course.

Rising star Janica Kostelic, the one-woman Croatian team, crash-landed during Thursday's downhill training on the newly-reconfigured course, rupturing every ligament in her right knee to end her season - perhaps even her career.

Austria lost it's promising rookie Silvia Berger to torn knee ligaments, Switzerland lost Sylviane Berthod to the same injury, and Norway will have to continue without Kristine Kristiansen, who also ended up in the St. Moritz Gut Clinic with a damaged knee.

World Cup veteran Pernilla Wiberg, a multiple Olympic and world champion, may have to undergo a ninth operation on her left knee, after a heavy landing on one of the course's jumps reawakened an old knee injury, already aggravated by a crash during a super-G in Lake Louise earlier this year.

Three of those injured this weekend were podium finishers this season, with Berger finishing runner-up in a giant slalom in Val d'Isere, Kostelic winning back-to-back slaloms, and Wiberg triumphing in Saturday's downhill.