Bulgaria on the way to impress the ski world
For years, Bulgarian sports officials dreamed of getting back on the Alpine ski World Cup calendar. Weather problems elsewhere mean they suddenly find themselves hosting two downhills, plus a super-G, next weekend.
"To organise a downhill race is really difficult", said Bulgarian ski federation president Tseko Minev. "You can easily see it's much harder to prepare for a downhill race than to prepare for a slalom event, for example.
"And now we have two (downhills) in two consecutive days. You just can't ask for a bigger challenge", he told Reuters. "It's a privilege to host an extra race but it's also a big responsibility".
"But we've been dreaming of having a World Cup race in Bulgaria for four years and we're just excited about the opportunity."
Bulgaria's oldest winter resort, Borovets, featured briefly on the World Cup schedule with men's slalom and giant slalom races in the 1981 and 1984 seasons, when the country was under communist rule.
Officials hope that the coming events, in the resort of Bansko, will prove to be a turning point for Bulgarian skiing.
Bansko, some 160 kms south of the capital Sofia, was given the right to host a women's downhill next Saturday and a super-G the following day.
A second downhill, on Friday, was added when the International Ski Federation (FIS) rescheduled a race called off on Dec. 21 in Switzerland's St. Moritz because of high winds.
"We realise what it means to organise such a big event and I can say it could be a revolution for our sport, for its development in our country", Minev, a top banker, said.
Bulgaria is keen to win recognition in the Alpine skiing world and Minev is confident that the races in Bansko, where the federation has been involved in renovating facilities, could be the perfect advertisement.
It wasn't that long ago when we were nowhere on the Alpine skiing map but we did extremely hard work over the last couple of years to improve our status.
"(This) could be a stepping stone to the men's races", Minev added. "We're already on the 2011 FIS preliminary list and we know that skiing officials will keep a sharp eye on every single detail."
Bulgaria has not tasted Alpine skiing success since the country's best skier Peter Popangelov won a 1980 World Cup slalom in Lenggries, Germany.
However, Minev is optimistic for the future after the domestic federation launched a 'Learn to ski' initiative allowing 3, 500 children to take free lessons from qualified coaches with five-times World Cup overall champion Marc Girardelli, who raced for Luxembourg, helping as a consultant.
Austrian slalom specialist Kilian Albrecht took Bulgarian citizenship in 2006 and has had two top-20 results in the World Cup this season but Minev said there were no plans to try to persuade more foreign skiers to compete for the Balkan country.
Kilian helped us a lot, Minev said. He's an exceptional man and we intend to use his vast experience even when he decides to bring his career to an end.
But we're not looking for foreign skiers any more. We're trying to create good conditions for the young Bulgarian skiers.
Minev believes Bulgaria has the potential to attract more winter tourists.
"We have such unique natural resources that I can predict we can have at least a dozen top-class winter resorts, " he said. "We only need a good policy and willingness to add the necessary infrastructure."
Sofia, located at the foot of the Vitosha mountain, failed in its bids to host the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics.
Winter sports fans are delighted at the prospect of seeing the big names in Alpine skiing compete in Bulgaria.
"It's unbelievable, " said Hristina Dyankova, 34. "I watch the World Cup races regularly on TV and I also go to Bansko almost every year. So to hear that Bansko would host such a race was fantastic. It's two in one and you can't dream for more."
Fans are not expecting much, however, from the only home competitor in the weekend's races. Maria Kirkova finished outside the top 20 in all her events at the world championships in Val d'Isere earlier this month and has never finished a World Cup race. No Bulgarian woman has ever won a World Cup event.
Many foreign fans are expected to flock to the Pirin mountain for the races and Bansko mayor Alexandar Kravarov is looking forward to the attention, with at least 15 television stations planning to broadcast the races live.
"The whole world will stare at us, " said Kravarov. "We won that recognition as we've already successfully hosted several of Alpine skiing's Europa Cup races."
Local police are gearing up too. "This competition could be compared to a Formula One race but we're doing everything necessary to cope with our task, " police commissar Konstantin Tityanov said.
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