Skiing: Tomba clears path for Von Grunigen

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Alpine skiing will have to make do without Alberto Tomba when the World Cup season opens in Austria this weekend.

The triple Olympic champion ruled himself out of the giant slalom on the Solden glacier when he fell heavily during training in northern Italy on Wednesday, forcing him to take a three-week break.

This weekend's race is one of many World Cup events Tomba has scrapped from his schedule this season. He has not said when and where he will make his first World Cup appearance. Instead "La Bomba", who considered retiring after winning two world championship gold medals in Spain last February, will concentrate his efforts on the 1997 event in Sestriere.

His absence from tomorrow's men's race puts the spotlight on Michael Von Grunigen, the giant slalom title-holder. Switzerland's Urs Kalin, the Norwegian Lasse Kjus and the overall World Cup holder, Kjetil Andre Amodt, are expected to be Von Grunigen's main challengers.

Home skiers to watch include the 1994 overall giant slalom winner Christian Mayer, Hans Knauss, who won his first World Cup race on the circuit's most demanding giant slalom piste at Alta Badia last season, and Mario Reiter, fit again after a recent operation. Gunther Mader's, Austria's most consistent skier for the past decade and runner-up in the overall World Cup in 1995 and 1996, is suffering from back trouble and may not compete.

Germany's Martina Ertl, the dominant figure in women's giant slalom competition last winter, misses today's race because of a knee injury. Instead, German hopes rest with Katja Seizinger, in pursuit of a second consecutive World Cup crystal trophy. Other women to watch are Italians Deborah Compagnoni, a double Olympic champion, and Isolde Kostner, a super-G world champion in Spain.

From this weekend the International Ski Federation is to restrict the size of metal plates used under the bindings connecting ski and boot in an attempt to reduce the risk of accidents. The plates enable skiiers to corner faster and are believed to have contributed to recent accidents, including the death of the Austrain double world champion, Ulrike Maier, in 1994.