Skiing: Elements conspire in test of mettle: Bill Scott reports from Morioka, Japan, on the challenge ahead for skiers at the World Championships, starting today

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TO succeed athletes have to develop a way of dealing with the nerves that can descend on the eve of major events but it will be difficult for any but the toughest to avoid getting the wind up if the weather is on its worst behaviour during the World Championships here over the next 12 days.

Kotakakura and Takakura, the side-by-side mounains where, over the next 12 days, Japan will stage its most important winter sports event since the Sapporo Olympics in 1972, can be beset by foul and disruptive weather as the teams have witnessed on previous visits. In 1991, women sat for a week waiting to race a World Cup event, and in February last year the men managed a super-giant slalom but the planned downhill went by the board.

The mountains here have wasted no time in serving up a reminder of the surprises they can spring on skier and ski technician alike. While, in the Alps, winter itself has been in hibernation - lack of snow put paid to both the Kitzbuhel and Wengen World Cup races - a new 40-centimetre thick blanket descended on the slopes here on Monday night, forcing the third day's training for the women's combined downhill today to be cancelled. The men did manage their first practice session, but given that many use early runs to assess the course it was frustrating that they could sample only a shortened version of the Mt Takakura piste.

The Frenchman Luc Alphand set the fastest time of the day, but of more significance were the crashes, one of which left a member of the American team in hospital with serious injuries. Erik Schlopy had a spectacular fall when wind appeared to catch him during a jump. The 20-year-old from Buffalo suffered a fractured sternum and spine, along with knee and elbow injuries. He was reported in serious but stable condition after the incident. Two other Americans, Paul Puckett and Chad Fleischer, suffered lesser injuries in tumbles.

With snow conditions what they are, ski technicians are becoming the men of the moment. They are charged with preparing skis for individual racers and can make or break anyone's chances on slopes severalskiers fear will not measure up to world-class standards.

Downhillers are particularly worried about the men's course, where the blue-riband event of the championships will be staged on Sunday. 'Bad weather and wind are the big problems,' Franz Heinzer, the downhill world champion, said. 'Everything will depend on the servicemen much more than on us.'

The weather aside, the Japanese downhill courses may be only moderately challenging for the elite racers. Despite being modified by the Swiss designer, Bernhard Russi, the man behind the Olympic 'Face du Bellevarde' run at Val d'Isere, Mt Takakura is more of a gentle roll for the men than a giant drop. 'The wind will tell the story,' the American A J Kitt said. 'And the course is pretty boring.'

Kitt was ninth fastest in practice yesterday, with Britain's Graham Bell 11th and his brother, Martin, 38th. Heinzer was 33rd.

The World Cup holder, Paul Accola, is not expected to attempt the downhill. But then it is a surprise that he is here at all after suffering knee ligament injuries in November that were expected to keep him out of action until the spring. He intends to enter the slalom and the giant slalom, in which Alberto Tomba, Italy's triple Olympic gold medallist, will be aiming to improve on his surprisingly poor World Championship record of just one bronze medal, from the giant slalom in 1987.

For Pernilla Wiberg, the women's Olympic giant slalom champion, there was no such miracle cure. The Swede tore an Achilles tendon in January and faces months of rehabilitation. Also missing from the women's events is the Petra Kronberger, who retired last month citing burn-out and thus surrendered the slalom and combined world titles she won at Saalbach in her native Austria in 1991.

But like the Olympics, the world championships, where 40 nations will be represented, are not simply about the medals at stake in the five men's and five women's events. They also provide the chance for performers from such hotbeds of winter sports as Guatemala, Brazil, Ireland, South Africa, Cyprus and Senegal to measure themselves against the best.

None of those 'exotics', as Franz Klammer liked to call them, will mind the 22-kilometre drive from the teams' accommodation at the tranquil Oshuku hot springs for 8 am inspections of the competition pistes. But for those with eyes for gold, silver and bronze, the journey could perhaps provide too much time to dwell on the events that are about to unfold.

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP TIMETABLE: Today: women's combination downhill. Tomorrow: women's downhill. 5 Feb: women's combination slalom. 6: men's combination downhill. 7: men's downhill. 8: men's combination slalom. 9: women's giant slalom. 10: men's super-giant slalom. 11: women's super-giant slalom. 12: men's giant slalom. 13: women's slalom. 14: men's slalom.

(Photograph and map omitted)