Start list included 154 skiers from 56 nations

BORMIO, Italy -- A former Brazilian street child, an aristocratic Mexican pop star and a 44-year-old African ski association president all got the better of Bode
Miller on Thursday.

Attempting to defend his giant slalom title at the Alpine skiing world championships, Miller crashed out after snagging his ski on a rock during a challenging first run.

But as America's top gun tumbled, the finest skiers from Cyprus, Iceland and Senegal soared -- or at least made it down the hill in one piece.

"The track was very long and difficult, but I like it like that," said Johnatan Longhi, a 16-year-old Brazilian who was taken off the streets and adopted by an Italian family at the age of 4. "I would love to become famous in Brazil and do something for my country, but for now I just want to become a good skier and maybe do some races in the Europa Cup."

Skiers from the so-called "small nations" have long been a part of the world championships, with the International Ski Federation (FIS) keen to raise the sport's profile in non-traditional skiing countries.

But Thursday's start list of 154 skiers, representing 56 nations, set a new record and even forced FIS to alter its race and television schedule -- with 2 1/4 hours needed just to complete the first run.

"Any technical inconvenience is outbalanced by the fact that Alpine skiing has now developed on a world basis," FIS secretary general Sarah Lewis told Reuters before the start of the race. "We've got nations participating here that have never participated at a world championships before and we've been very forthright in trying to develop a program for those countries.

"The global interest is wonderful, with people looking at the Internet to see how their racers are getting on, and new television markets opening up. And we already saw in the women's giant slalom race a huge improvement in the standard of the racers compared to just two years ago," she said.

Not all of those competing in the men's race on Thursday were youngsters with dreams of future careers in the sport, however.

Senegal's Lamine Gueye -- who is also the president of his country's ski association -- was one of the oldest competitors at 44. He finished the day in 77th place, almost a minute behind Austrian gold medal-winner Hermann Maier.

Starting skiing after being sent "as a bad boy" to boarding school in Switzerland, Gueye has been competing in world championships for more than a decade. But Thursday's race was the first time that he could recall doing better than the defending world champion.

"Of course that's a first for me but I have too much respect for guys like Bode than to say that I really beat him," Gueye told Reuters.

"Bode did such a fantastic job in the downhill. As a non-champion I know what it is to come down these slopes in the time I race them, so I can imagine what it's like to go at their speeds," he said.

Also completing the course on Thursday was Hubertus von Hohenlohe -- a 46-year-old descendant of German royalty who races for Mexico, works as a photographer and occasionally makes forays into the European pop charts.

"I was aiming for a place in the top 60 and I finished 60th so I'm really proud," said von Hohenlohe after bumping his way down the Stelvio course in the colors of Feyenoord Rotterdam soccer club.

While the world's top skiers will not be worrying just yet about rivals from Lebanon, Armenia or Kyrgyzstan, there was plenty of determination on display among the skiing world's new arrivals on Thursday.

"I wasn't happy with how I skied," said Gueye's 24-year-old Senegalese team mate Leyti Seck after finishing both runs some 26 seconds behind Maier. "But my special discipline is the slalom so I'm just looking ahead to Saturday's race now. I want to really go for it in that one and get a good result."

Even if his own goals are set a little higher, Miller was surely thinking something very similar on Thursday night.