SCHLADMING, Austria (AP) — Marcel Hirscher, Anna Fenninger and their teammates will face an uphill task to repeat Austria's past successes at the Alpine skiing world championships when the racing starts on home snow this week.
Schladming, a small mining town in the province of Styria with less than 5,000 inhabitants, is expecting a total of 400,000 visitors during the worlds, which start Tuesday with the women's super-G and end Feb. 17 with the men's slalom.
An average crowd of 30,000 is expected at each race, with many of the fans hoping for a repeat of Austria's success in 2011 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, when Austria topped the medal table with four golds, three silvers and one bronze.
However, the Austrian team is likely to have a hard time matching that feat this time around. Downhill and super-G champion Elisabeth Goergl has failed to finish in the top 10 of any speed race this season and slalom champion Marlies Schild is still doubtful after knee surgery in December, increasing pressure on super-combined champion Fenninger.
Fierce competition is expected from the United States — with Lindsey Vonn back to her usual strength after fighting a mid-season intestinal illness and teenager Mikaela Shiffrin leading the slalom standings — and from Slovenia.
Tina Maze has dominated the World Cup season so far, winning seven races and having 10 more top-three finishes in all five Alpine disciplines, putting the Slovenian in contention to beat Austrian great Hermann Maier's record of 2,000 World Cup points in one season.
Maze could also become the first woman to medal in all five individual events at a single world championship. The only skier achieving that feat was Lasse Kjus of Norway at the 1999 championships in Vail and Beaver Creek, Colorado.
On the men's side, Austria has high hopes for overall World Cup champion Hirscher, who missed the 2011 worlds with a broken foot. Hirscher earned 13 podiums, including six victories, this season. The Austrian will skip the speed races to fully focus on his strongest disciplines, slalom and giant slalom, though he was considering a start in the super-combined event.
In GS, defending world champion Ted Ligety looks to be the man to beat after taking four races with huge winning margins, despite having to use new skis following a rule change by the governing body which the American criticized before the season started.
In the speed events, former overall champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, who took the super-combined title two years ago, is among the favorites again after winning three super-G races and a downhill.
However, the World Cup has not always been the best indicator of who might do well at world championships. Christof Innerhofer of Italy wasn't enjoying a particularly outstanding season when he picked up three medals in Garmisch-Partenkirchen two years ago.
The one certainty is that the competition hosts have made every effort to ensure it goes well. Local organizers have invested €70 million ($95 million) in recent years to build courses and infrastructure for skiing's 13-day marquee event.
"The finish stadium is unique, something the ski sport hasn't seen before," said Hans Pum, Alpine director of the Austrian ski federation. Still, it will need a string of good results by the Austrian team to turn the world championships into the success story the ski-mad nation is hoping for.
"We will evaluate the whole event after 14 days," said Reinhold Zitz, director of the local organizing committee. "A key aspect is going to be whether the Austrian ski stars have been successful. I am sure they will."
The world championships return to Schladming after 31 years, but memories of the 1982 event will be distant. Men and women race on separate courses for most events but they now share the same finish area. The stadium and the stands along the courses combine for a capacity crowd of 32,000.
Schladming's bid to host the worlds for a second time was unsuccessful twice before a third attempt was awarded in 2008. The construction works that followed will also benefit the annual night slalom in the resort, which has been a stop on the men's World Cup circuit every year since 1997.