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Vancouver 2010: Finns pin Olympic hopes on cross-country women

Helsinki: Vancouver 2010 Olympics: The pressure is on Finland’s women Cross-Country skiers if the Nordic country is to reach its target of 12 Winter Olympic medals.

“The official target is for at least one gold medal,” said Finnish Olympic Committee sports director Kari Niemi-Nikkola, who is leading the Team Finland at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

Finland has a strong winter sports tradition, but its medal tally at the Torino Games four years ago included six silvers, three bronzes and no gold.

“Women’s cross-country skiing is our strongest sport,” said Niemi-Nikkola.

Aino-Kaisa Saarinen is seen as the hottest of Finland’s women cross-country skiers this season. She won three golds at the World Championships in Liberec last year, and has an Olympic bronze from the team sprint in Torino.

Saarinen’s Torino sprint partner Virpi Kuitunen took two golds at the 2009 World Championships, but has had a weaker run this season. Last week she missed what was meant to be her final competition before the Olympic Games due to fever.

“The cross-country skiers, the women in particular, need to perform perfectly on the ski trails of Whistler for the 12-medal goal to be even theoretically possible,” regional newspaper Savon Sanomat wrote earlier this month.

“Aino-Kaisa Saarinen is undeniably in medal-shape, but even she cannot fulfill the ambitious goal on her own.”

In the Nordic combined, commentators are putting their bets on veteran Hannu Manninen, who returned to competition this winter after a break to focus on his family and studies.

Manninen, 31, won four consecutive World Cup titles in 2003 to 2007 and has had a good run at the selected competitions he has entered this winter.

Commentators expect him to bring home an individual medal to complement the team medals he has won at the past three Games.

In ski jumping, which topped ice hockey as the most respected sport in Finland in a recent survey, the legendary Janne Ahonen has returned to compete in time for the Olympic Games.

“Gold is completely conceivable,” veteran sports commentator Jari Porttila said of Ahonen, whose achievements include two World Championships, three team World Championships, two team Olympic silvers, five Four Hills wins and 32 World Cup victories.

Finland’s ice hockey lineup has never managed to rise to the highest step on the podium, and while the national Olympic Committee says the team aims to improve on its silver from four years ago, commentators are pessimistic.

“There’s no chance (of gold). The Russian and Canadian teams are of such high calibre that something big has to happen if they are not in the final,” Porttila told AFP.

On the alpine front, Tanja Poutiainen, who won the women’s World Cup giant slalom in Cortina D’Ampezzo, looks to be back on form after back problems earlier in the season.


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