SKIING : No snow but not no show in Spain

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The Independent Online
Organisers of the World Championships in Spain's Sierra Nevada expect the event to be staged solely on artificial snow for the first time.

With six days remaining before the world's leading skiers are due to hurtle down the slopes of Europe's southern-most ski resort, the Sierra's daunting pistes lack one thing - real snow.

Villagers dusted down the effigies of their patron saints over the weekend and marched them through the streets in a late and increasingly desperate plea for the heavens to open.

But the heavens were not impressed. On Monday temperatures rose to 6C on the lower slopes and machines which have churned out artificial snow for weeks spluttered and died in the midday sun.

Racks of skis stood forlornly in the hire shops. The public has been ordered off the slopes to preserve precious artificial snow and handfuls of holiday skiers haunted open-air cafes, basking in the sunshine. Shopkeepers and restaurant owners fixed theirgazes on a crystal blue sky which is threatening to deprive them of a fortnight's lucrative trade.

Local business people and tournament organisers have spent five years and 160bn pesetas (£7.9m) preparing pistes and bringing facilities in the Sierra Nevada up to world-class standards.

Nevertheless, organisers remain optimistic. The giant snow machines have been working flat out and officials say 80 per cent of the pistes are covered.

But safety worries remain, with outcrops of bare rock dangerously close to the fringes of the pistes. Teams have been warned there will be no spare snow for practice in any discipline.

On Monday morning Spanish soldiers trudged up the hillsides dragging fences and crash barriers behind them as efforts to patch up the slopes and ensure maximum safety continued apace. The fate of the championships remains in the balance, with officials reluctant to say whether they will go ahead.

Last week, Monday was fixed as decision day when the international ski federation, the FIS, was to decide if the tournament would be put back until 1996. Monday arrived and FIS officials declined to share the findings of piste inspections with the army of reporters starting to arrive in southern Spain.

On Monday, however, Sepp Messner, the FIS men's race director, said he was optimistic after a dawn inspection of the pistes. "The courses are very good. We need a bit more snow at the start of the downhill on the first 50 metres, but that should be readytoday," he said.

A final decision on the fate of the tournament, due to start next Monday, will be made tomorrow at noon.

The temperature at the time of the morning inspection was 0C and was forecast to rise to nine degrees later in the day, but Messner said artificial snow could be made overnight when temperatures dropped again.

Temperatures in the Sierra Nevada are expected to remain lower over the coming days.

Asked whether these would be the first World Championships to be held solely on artificial snow, Messner said: "Yes, I believe so. I have been in six or seven and that was never the case".