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BORMIO, Italy -- Picture this for the Sochi Olympics: Bode Miller not allowed to defend his super-combined title, Lindsey Vonn limited to two events and other medal contenders held out of some of their favorite disciplines.
It's a scenario that top skiers are calling "absurd" but that could become a reality -- at least, that's how the big Alpine nations are interpreting the International Ski Federation's (FIS) complex new Olympic qualifying rules.
"We're waiting for FIS to clarify what it means and how it works," U.S. Ski Team men's head coach Sasha Rearick told The Associated Press on Monday -- three weeks before he has to name his team for Sochi. "It's critical that we have a fair solution and the top athletes can compete in the events they deserve to."
At issue are rules put in place last year to help smaller nations gain Olympic qualifying spots. In the fine print, the rules require skiers to finish a certain number of races in a discipline over last season and this season -- up to Jan. 19 -- to qualify for that event in Sochi. It's five races for the technical events of slalom and giant slalom, and three for the speed events of downhill, super-G and super-combined.
For the men's super-combined, those rules mean Miller, American world champion Ted Ligety and Austrian standout Benjamin Raich could all miss out. And the injured Vonn -- if she decides to compete in Sochi -- would be limited to just two events -- downhill and super-G.
Miller took off last season to let his surgically repaired left knee heal, Vonn has not raced much since crashing at last season's worlds and subsequent knee surgery. And while Ligety won gold medals in super-G, super-combined and giant slalom at last season's worlds, he did not finish the only two World Cup super-combined races last season.
Raich and fellow Austrians Anna Fenninger and Kathrin Zettel also don't have enough results in super-combi.
"It's stupid. It's not a good rule," said Peter Schroecksnadel, the president of the Austrian ski federation. "The strongest nations should be able to have the strongest athletes."
FIS men's World Cup director Gunter Hujara is promising a last-minute change.
"We will handle it at the end," he announced at a team captain's meeting Sunday. "There may be some adaptations done in the next few days. That's the only answer I can give for now."
FIS secretary general Sarah Lewis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The rules states that the previous results don't have to come in a World Cup race, but could also be in the lower-tier Europa Cup and other FIS events.
That's why the Austrian ski federation set up FIS super-combined races on home snow in Innerkrems last week -- one of which was won by Frederic Berthold, the son of Austria men's head coach Mathias Berthold. The Austrians were initially planning to enter Raich and other top athletes but then withdrew them, expecting a rule change.
Still, women's super-combis are scheduled for Innerkrems this week.
"It's crazy if you have to manipulate the system like that and implement races so you get starts," U.S. Alpine director Patrick Riml said.
With his gold-medal performance at the worlds as his only result, Ligety still needs two super-combined finishes to qualify. He could get one in the super-combi in Wengen, Switzerland, on Jan. 17, but would need one more.
"If they don't let the best guys race then it would be absurd," Ligety said. "It wouldn't be an event. ... They'll get it figured out. They'll make it so the best guys can race. It wouldn't make any sense otherwise."
Ligety, Miller, Vonn and the Austrians would still qualify for the Olympics in other events.
Another issue is the number of racers that the big teams can bring to Sochi. Usually, for teams like Austria, Switzerland and the U.S. it's 22. But for now, Austria and Switzerland are at 20 and the U.S. is only at 19.
But the numbers will go up once the small nations give back the spots they don't need -- or can't fill.
"The big nations should not wait for small nations to give spots back so we can have our top athletes performing," Riml said. "They have to rethink the whole system. It's not right."
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