Skking: The slippery slope really a soft touch: Bill Scott reports from Morioka, Japan, on the ski race going nowhere on a course described as ridiculously easy

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The Independent Online
WHENEVER it is finally held, the men's downhill in the world championships here is sure to be a contentious race on a piste which has been described as being suitable for an 'athletic geriatric'.

Marc Girardelli, the World Cup points leader, has been picking holes in the 3.5km Mount Takakura course ever since training began earlier this week. 'My granny could race here,' the 29- year-old Luxembourg skier said. 'And so could a child with a few ski lessons. This is a disgrace.'

Girardelli's criticism might be the harshest, but he is not alone in attacking the venue for the blue- riband element of championships fighting to maintain a 10-event schedule in the face of uncooperative weather.

Yesterday, a consortium of coaches, nervous Japanese organisers and the International Ski Federation took a good look at the gloomy forecast and appeared to give up. There is no accurate way to know on what day the downhill will be held, although today is still viewed as the best from a television point of view.

Girardelli feels that it is the spectator who will feel cheated after watching what is supposed to be one of the highlights of the sport being run on an ordinary mountain. 'The public will be mad and they will not enjoy what they see,' he said.

The problem with the piste is simple. It is too easy for the best in the world. The capricious weather creates difficulties of its own and the snow texture, moisture and general condition are like nothing seen in the Alps or Rockies.

For months, ski technicians have been working to understand the peculiar characteristics of the northern Japanese snow - and not without some success. But many competitors now believe that the best skis and not the best man will win on race day.

Conditions change constantly. During the women's combined downill on Thursday, all four seasons seemed to follow one after another in less than an hour. Factory ski tuners have their work cut out for them. Secret waxes have been developed which will be of use only here and then never touched again.

While servicemen worry about the snow, racers will be trying to find speed on a track with an average gradient of 25.4 per cent. It may be tame, but Mount Takakura boasts colourful passages, including 'Long-Nosed Goblin in a Dancing Place', the 'Bear in Bamboo Grass', the 'Fox Trap' and a spot named after a local Samurai warrior of several centuries ago.

Organisers have put on a brave face, crucial in Japan, but anxious teams can only pray everything will come right today. The defects of nature cannot be easily remedied. 'If we wanted to stage the world championships at the best possible venue, they would always be held at Kitzbuhel,' the FIS president, Marc Hodler, said. 'We are racing here on the best downhill in Japan.'

MARTIN and Graham Bell, of Britain, achieved their best results for three seasons in finishing 18th and 26th respectively in the combined downhill yesterday. France's Luc Alphand led the way on Mount Takakura, closely followed by Italy's Kristian Ghedina and the American A J Kitt. The slalom section is scheduled for Monday.