Alpine skiing-Swiss change colours to race for Moldova
By Patrick Lang
BASEL, Switzerland, Dec 13 - The highest point in Moldova is Balanesti hill, rising to just 430 metres, yet from this season the former Soviet republic has its own Alpine ski team competing in the World Cup.
Ready to challenge the traditional ski nations under the Moldovan flag are Urs Imboden and Christoph Roux, both former Swiss racers, and ex-Italian Sascha Gritsch.
The trio are part of a growing band of world-class skiers who switch nationalities in order to continue competing on the World Cup tour -- some to prolong their careers, others because of disagreements with coaches.
Austrian-born slalom specialist Kilian Albrecht, 33, who was once a regular top-10 finisher in World Cup races, will make his debut for his new team Bulgaria at a race in Alta Badia, Italy, next Monday.
Albrecht, granted Bulgarian citizenship days ago, had initially hoped to represent the United Arab Emirates but, despite having built a huge indoor skiing facility, the country is not part of the International Ski Federation (FIS).
Having raced for Austria at the 2002 Olympics, Albrecht can now hope to ski for Bulgaria in 2010 at Vancouver. The best skier from Bulgaria was Peter Popangelov, who finished sixth in slalom at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. He also won a World Cup race at Lenggries, Germany, in January 1980.
For Moldova, a largely agricultural country of four million people, Alpine ski racing is something new.
Imboden, Gritsch and Roux -- the son of former Swiss downhill racer Philippe Roux who was fourth in the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics -- got their Moldovan passports in the off-season and were given the go-ahead to race by the FIS last month.
The 31-year-old Imboden, whose best result in Swiss colours was fifth in a Park City slalom in 2001, came close to giving Moldova their first World Cup points in Beaver Creek, Colorado, this month.
He almost qualified for the second run of the slalom after clocking the 34th best time in the first leg, four places off the cut.
Imboden and his colleagues will have plenty more chances in the World Cup, which runs until March, and expect to compete against their old team mates at the world championships in Are, Sweden, in February.
Many racers before them have switched nationalities to allow them to continue their careers. Some were successful for both teams, such as Katrin Gutensohn, the 1990 downhill World Cup champion who won races for Austria and Germany, and Christa Kinshofer, three times an Olympic medallist in the 1980s, who did well for both Germany and the Netherlands.
Five-times overall World Cup champion Marc Girardelli, who won 46 races on the tour, was the best-known example.
Born in Austria, he fell out with the national team and switched to Luxembourg, collecting a total of 13 medals for his new nation at six world championships and three Olympic Games.
Last season, Italian-born Alexandra Coletti switched to Monaco, where she lives with her parents, after tensions with her trainers. She finished 20th earlier this month in a super-G at Lake Louise, Canada.
Josef Strobl switched to Slovenia last season after having disappointing results on the Austrian team. He was granted a Slovenian passport after proving that one of his grandfathers had lived in what is now Slovenia before World War One.
The Polish-born Tlalka sisters, Dorota and Malgorzata, married French brothers and became two of France's best slalom skiers in the late 1980s under their married name of Mogore.
In 1981, American Robert McKee competed for Ireland on the World Cup while in his 40s and finished 85th in the overall standings by scoring seven points in the combined event.
Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe, a member of an old-established German family and son of former actress Ira von Fuerstenberg, founded the Mexican Ski Federation in the early 1980s in order to compete in Olympics and world championships.
He even obtained six top-10 finishes in combined on the World Cup tour in the early 1980s though his recent results have been more modest and he was 54th in the Reiteralm super-combined last weekend.
Von Hohenlohe plans to compete next February in his ninth world championships, which start the day after his 48th birthday.
National federations can, if they choose, make life difficult for skiers who want to move by insisting that their accumulated FIS ranking points are wiped out.
Skiers must then work their way back up to World Cup status by acquiring points at lower-level races.
The movement of skiers may get more difficult in future as the FIS is studying proposals to compel athletes to live in their new country for a specified period before it will allow them to change teams.
(Writing by Clare Fallon in London)
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index