The first Nordic skiing world championships in Asia starts today with the "coolest sprint race ever" in cross-country skiing.
The Sapporo Dome stadium sees the start and finish of the sprints as well as tomorrow's team sprint and Nordic combined sprint event.
It is the first time that Nordic events are decided indoors, with the 30,000 available seats all but sold out in the arena which also staged matches at the 2002 soccer World Cup.
"It will be the coolest sprint race ever. The dome is great and the field will be stronger than ever," US cross-country skier Andrew Newell told a news conference yesterday.
French Nordic combined competitor Jason Lamy-Chappuis, who got his first career World Cup win last year in Sapporo, agreed: "The dome is really going to be exciting. We have never done anything like this."
A total of 18 world titles are up for grabs in cross-country skiing, Nordic combined and ski-jumping, with 495 athletes from 49 countries competing until March 4.
Norway is the traditional powerhouse and aims to rebound from the Olympic shame of last year, when the country won no gold medals at all as athletes were either ill or out of form.
"There is always pressure for us. We were so bad in Pragelato [at the Olympics in Italy] and hope to take some medals here," youngster Petter Northug said.
Norway hopes for at least part of the winning haul of seven gold, five silver and seven bronze from the last worlds held in Oberstdorf, Germany, in 2005.
The Norwegians are using all resources, including biathletes Ole Einar Bjoerndalen and Lars Berger. Bjoerndalen won a cross-country race early in the season and is now bidding to win gold in Sapporo on top of two titles earlier this month at the biathlon worlds.
Norway also boasts medal contender Magnus Moan in Nordic combined and have a top favorite in ski-jumping in the form of Anders Jacobsen, the World Cup leader and Four Hills Tour champion.
"I am happy with what I have accomplished. There is a little pressure but I want to have fun and do my best," Jacobsen said.
Enjoying her best season, World Cup leader Finnish cross-country skier Virpi Kuitunen, 30, is favored in every discipline starting with today's sprint.
The worlds come six years after she and five other Finns were caught using a forbidden blood volume expander in Lahti, Finland.
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