Kiwis failing to meet expectations in Sochi

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:03 15/02/2014
Jossi Wells
Fairfax NZ
FINDING IT TOUGH: New Zealand's Jossi Wells made the slopestyle finals in Sochi but fell well short of a medal.

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New Zealand athletes are struggling to match inflated expectations at the Winter Olympics.

The inclusion of snowboard slopestyle and freestyle skiing for the first time at Sochi provided a boost to hopes that New Zealand might be able to add to the only piece of silverware in the Winter Olympic trophy cabinet, a silver medal won by Annelise Coberger in 1992.

New Zealand had four riders qualify for the women's slopestyle snowboard, in a field of 23, while this country has been a trailblazer in free skiing through Wanaka's Wells family, with Jossi Wells carrying a massive weight of expectation into Thursday night's slopestyle competition.

But with more than half of the 15-strong New Zealand team having made an appearance at the Games so far, only Shane Dobbin and Wells have managed to make it into finals.

High Performance Sport NZ provided a one-off payment of $115,000 last year to bring its investment into Snow Sports NZ in 2013 to just over $1.8 million.

Chief executive Alex Baumann said, before the Games, the team was "perhaps the most professionally prepared team we've ever sent to a Winter Games."

Yesterday, Baumann said he preferred not to comment on New Zealand's performance until after a post-Games review.

"The Olympics is a tough environment and Sochi is no different. It's an environment like no other," Baumann, who is in Russia, said.

"The New Zealand team here in Sochi is a young team, and many of the athletes are considered 2018 prospects. The freeski and snowboard slopestyle events are new to the Olympic Winter Games and there's been potential for New Zealand there. But we've also been realistic as the nature of these sports is that positions on the podium can change around a lot. For example, over a six-month period in the park and pipe disciplines during the 2013 northern hemisphere season, 19 athletes claimed podiums."

There is additional investment from the New Zealand Olympic Committee through the Olympic Solidarity fund.

Dobbin, the New Zealand flagbearer at the Sochi opening ceremony, finished 14th in the 5000m speed skating, improving three places on his result from Vancouver four years ago. He'll get another chance to impress in his favoured 10,000m event on Wednesday.

Wells was realistically only an outside medal hope on Thursday, but needed to produce some of the best skiing of his career to stand out in a powerful field of athletes eager to showcase their sport at the Olympics for the first time.

Ranked third in the world across the freeski disciplines of halfpipe, slopestyle and big air, Wells is ranked only 17th in slopestyle, with commentators suggesting any one of seven skiiers was a podium chance at Sochi. Wells finished 11th in the final, after qualifying in 10th spot, while his younger brother, Beau-James, finished 21st in a field of 32 in his Olympic debut.

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The performance of the women's snowboarders may have already coloured perceptions of New Zealand's performance in Sochi to date.

With World Tour rankings inside the top 16, Stefi Luxton, Christy Prior and Possum Torr failed to advance past the semifinal, with Shelly Gotlieb the best of the "Awesome Foursome", with a 15th placing in the semifinal.

Ranked 12th in the World Tour rankings, Prior's hopes of leading a New Zealand charge into the final were dashed when she crashed in practice and had to withdraw with suspected concussion.

Snowboard halfpipe rider Bex Sinclair went into her competition chasing a top-eight finish but was knocked out after finishing 21st in qualification, with the top nine in her heat advancing either to the final or a semifinal.

Anna Willcox has shown the most improvement of the New Zealand team so far, narrowly missing out on advancing in the freeski slopestyle just three years after taking up the sport. Ranked 23rd before Sochi, she finished 15th in qualification. Fairfax NZ

- Fairfax Media

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