The Sochi Network

Unlikely China-Australia rivalry set to contest gold on the slopes

Freestyle skiing will provide some of the most thrilling Olympic action in Sochi and also an unlikely rivalry between non-traditional ski powers Australia and China.

Australia won a gold and a silver medal four years ago in Vancouver while China will be hoping to go one better in Sochi and add a gold medal to the silver and two bronze medals it won in aerial skiing at the 2010 Olympics.

With 10 events spread over five disciplines - two of which are included as medal sports for the first time - the freestyle skiing guarantees thrills and spills, with the most intriguing contest taking place in the women's aerials.

Rather than the traditional winter superpowers slugging it out, China and Australia will be in pole position when the competition begins on February 14.

Australian defending Olympic champion Lydia Lassila will have to fend off a strong challenge from the Chinese trio of Li Nina, Xin Zhang and Xu Mengtao, with the latter desperate to make up for missing the podium entirely in Vancouver.

A former gymnast, Xu Mengtao is famed for taking on the most technically complex jumps to impress the judges, but an excellent jump spoiled by a bungled landing in Vancouver arguably cost her a medal.

The current world champion, Mengtao has dominated the sport in recent times, racking up 18 successive podium appearances over two seasons but Lassila, who has returned to the sport after starting a family, will not give up her crown easily.

Lassila, who has been working on a quadruple twisting somersault, fears new regulations might see skiers taking less risks than usual.

"The sport is now judged differently," she told Reuters.

"It is now a three-jump elimination final which means your points are wiped clean after each round instead of being combined like the old system. So, it doesn't encourage risk taking which is really what our sport is."

While the aerials skiers get ready to soar skywards, another of freestyle skiing's disciplines, moguls, requires staying a little closer to the snow, although even they get airborne.

Along with aerials, moguls have been at the cornerstone of freestyle skiing at the Olympics with moguls being awarded medal status in 1992.

Combining speed and power over the knee-jarring bumps with two jumps, skiers are judged on their lines down the course and their jumps while speed dowm the course can add precious points.

American Hannah Kearney is the overwhelming favourite to defend her women's title after a dominant season on the World Cup, winning three of her six events.

"I feel like I'm better now than in Vancouver," the 27-year-old Vermont native said. "I don't really have new tricks or jumps but I've been training the same turns for four years and the results prove I'm as strong as ever."

Likewise Canada's Alex Bilodeau is favourite to retain the men's crown, although he will also face Chinese threats in the form of Guangpu Qi and Zhongqing Liu as well as fellow Canadian Alex Bilodeau.

Making its debut in Sochi will be slopestyle, an event that has been described as a "skatepark on snow" and features the young, hip crowd more used to "big air" events at some of the world's coolest resorts.

New names will emerge with the likes of James Woods from Britain and American Tom Wallisch expected to feature strongly in an event which sees skiers find the most creative way down an obstacle course of rails and ledges and jumps."

"No two runs are alike, its all about creativity and variety," Wallisch, whose urban skiing films have a huge following on YouTube, said. "You see lots of new interesting things and you're always on the edge of your seat not sure what's going to happen."

Slopestyle will be hoping to make a similar impact to ski cross, which was added to the Olympic programme in 2010.

While hardcore freestylers gave it a lukewarm reception, saying it was too close to traditional Alpine events, the sight of ski racers going head to head down a slope was great TV.

After a first run where each skier takes the course alone, the competitors are then split into groups of four according to their times and race down the course.

After a series of elimination rounds the medals are dished out to the first across the line.

Austria's Andreas Matt, a silver medallist in Vancouver, will be seeking to go one better although unpredictability is the essence of the sport and picking a winner will be tough.

Canada's Marielle Thompson is the World Cup leader with Swiss duo Katrin Mueller and Fanny Smith looking like her biggest rivals for gold.

Another new discipline on the packed freestyle skiing schedule is halfpipe - an area dominated by north Americans.

Seen as the mavericks of the ski world, where events are often held in cities hundreds of miles away from the nearest mountain, joining the Olympics is an exciting time for the sport, says twice X-Games winner David Wise.

"We're going from a sport that only people who ski watch," he said, "to something that worldwide people care about, whether they ski or not, which in my opinion is really cool; it's exciting for our sport."

Fans will not have to wait long for freestyle action to begin with women's moguls qualification beginning on next Thursday, the day before the opening ceremony.

Reuters