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Some top skiers to miss Olympics due to eligibility rules

Some of Olympic officialdom's worst fears seem to be coming true. Three of this season's most winning World Cup ski racers aren't likely to be at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, for the 14th Winter Games Feb. 7-19.

Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden and Hanni Wenzel of Liechtenstein, both double gold medal winners in 1980 as well as former World Cup champions, are now ineligible for Olympic competition. Another top current performer, Marc Giradelli, is an Austrian who races out of Luxembourg on the World Cup circuit and therefore cannot represent either country in the Olympics.

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The net result is that the winners of two of three World Cup giant slaloms this season and five of six World Cup slaloms probably won't compete at Sarajevo.

Controversy has surrounded the eligibility question since last year, when International Ski Federation (FIS) and Olympic officials seemed to be looking for a way to allow Stenmark, often considered the world's most technically perfect ski racer, to compete. There were many protests, including those of current World Cup champion Phil Mahre of the United States. (Stenmark gave up Olympic eligibility when he elected to negotiate his own lucrative commercial contracts after the 1980 Olympics rather than assign his interests to his national team, as do most racers. Wenzel did the same.)

Any chance that Stenmark might have been ruled eligible again was shot down by Ingemar himself, however, when he declined to turn back all his commercial contracts to the Swedish federation. A legal resident of tax-free Monaco now, he would have had to pay huge back taxes on millions of dollars to Sweden.

But Wenzel reportedly did turn over her contracts to the Liechtenstein federation. Director-General Franco Casper of the FIS was quoted as saying last November, ''I personally believe a little door has been left open because (Wenzel) turned over her contracts.''

The final decision probably won't be made until four days before the Olympics begin, according to Hank McKee, Alpine editor of the American journal, Ski Racing. But McKee thinks Wenzel's ineligibility will stick so that the International Olympic Committee can spare itself rekindled controversy. Therefore, he says, ''Possibly the three best racers as of right now won't be there.''

Those who will be there, however, include a number of skiers who on a given day can beat anybody in the world. This season's World Cup downhills have shown that virtually any man or woman in the top 20 seeds could win a major downhill. American Bill Johnson's unprecedented triumph in the Lauberhorn downhill is a case in point.

Led by Steve Podborski, Todd Brooker, and Gerry Sorensen, the Canadian men and women downhillers have fared well. Brooker, however, injured his knee in a widely televised fall in the famed Hahnemkamm race Jan. 21. Back in Canada, Brooker, known for his wild skiing style, indicated that if at all possible he will be in that gate at Sarajevo.

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Other downhillers to watch include World Cup leader Irene Epple of West Germany, and Switzerland's Maria Walliser among the women. Of the men, Urs Raeber and Franz Heinzer of Switzerland, Harti Weirather, Erwin Resch, and the incredible Franz Klammer of Austria are all threats, and there are others.

Klammer is likely to be the sentimental favorite. Having provided the world with the most spectacular downhill run ever televised in winning the 1976 Olympic gold medal at Innsbruck, Klammer slipped badly in the following seasons, failing even to make the 1980 Austrian Olympic team. Now, at 30, he is in the midst of a grueling comeback. Last season, he actually won the World Cup downhill division; now in supposedly his swan-song season, he made the home crowd wild as he skied to a spectacular victory in this year's Hahnemkamm.

In the so-called technical events (slalom and giant slalom), Switzerland's 1982 World Cup champion Erika Hess, who has been at or near the top of this year's chase, must be considered the woman to beat for anyone wanting a gold. Germany's Irene and Maria Epple, Canada's Laurie Graham and France's Perrine Pelen are among others who have been doing well in giant slalom.

Slalom stars include Roswitha Steiner of Austria, Poland's Tlalka sisters, Italy's Maria-Rosa Quario, and current World Cup champion Tamara McKinney of the United States. McKinney is skiing well, finishing high in almost every race, clearly capable of breaking into the lead in a big event.

But sometimes it's the unheralded racer, not facing the pressure on the front-runners, who gets Olympic glory. Watch young Swiss sensation Michela Figini, who won her first World Cup race Saturday in the last women's downhill before the Olympics, and Christin Cooper of the United States, who is on a fast comeback after an injury last winter.

Among the men, Pirmin Zurbriggen and Max Julen of Switzerland, Hans Enn and Hubert Stroiz of Austria, and Jure Franko of Yugoslavia are leading the pack in giant slalom. Bulgaria's Peter Popangelov, Liechtenstein's Andreas Wenzel, and Yugoslavia's Bojan Krizaj are skiing well in slalom.

Phil Mahre and his twin brother Steve are slowly but surely improving after their slow and aborted season start. Steve has won one slalom, only to be disqualified for wearing his brother's bib. Phil finished fourth in the Hahnemkamm slalom, one place ahead of Stenmark.

Still, Stenmark is obviously relishing his return to domination of the circuit after being beaten by Phil the past three years - and is already looking ahead to completing the job. After the Swede won his 77th World Cup giant slalom at Kirchberg, Austria, on Jan. 25, a US team spokesman quoted Stenmark: ''To win at Borovetz (Bulgaria, the last World Cup technical events before the Winter Olympics) would be nice. But to win in the States after (the Olympics) would be perfect.''

Where better, in other words, to nail down the cup than on Phil Mahre's home turf?

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