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Vienna | 21.7.2008 | 14:06 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

 
 
Bound for Beijing
  She's competing for Austria in one of the most spectacular events at the Beijing Olympics, but few people will have heard the name Lisi Osl before.

Maybe that will change when her sweat and blood sport is given the showcase it deserves next month on the demanding Laoshan Course.

I met Lisi in Kirchberg, Tyrol, where she is training for her rare moment under the TV spot-light. Her shy smile and quiet voice belie her significant achievement: at the grand old age of 22, she's become only the second Austrian woman to qualify for the Olympic mountain biking event.

It's something worth shouting about, I think.
 
 
 
 
 
  Having secured a bronze medal last year at the under 23-year old's World Championships at Fort William, Scotland, Lisi is now on target for a place among the elite on the senior tour.

But she's resolutely refusing to speculate about bring any medals home from China. "It was my dream to qualify. I'm so happy I made it. Anything else is a bonus."

At the beginning of the season, Lisi was thought to have a 50/50 chance of qualifying. Now that she's made it, to some extent the pressure is off.

Any starter in an event as massive as the Olympics is naturally going to feel nervous, but Lisi's coach Kurt Exenberger says that she really can't lose in Beijing. Her season's goal has already been achieved.

Kurt says a top 15 result would be realistic and a real triumph for Lisi and for the growth of the sport in this country.
 
 
 
 
 
  I couldn't help but be struck by Lisi's flea-like build. She weighs a mere 44 kilograms, distributed over a 1.65metre frame.

Coach Kurt says that her physique is neither a particular advantage nor disadvantage in this sort of mountain biking. "Light riders might be quicker up the hill, but more muscular riders have more acceleration out of the turns. It all evens up in the end."

She may look fragile, but Kurt insists that Lisi Osl's delicate frame hides a steely competitive drive.

Like most cycling disciplines, cross-country mountain biking is a lung-bursting sport - but one that also demands brains - as you pick your best route down the mountain - and the courage necessary to take significant risks over an unforgiving terrain of roots and rocks.

Kurt says she possesses the latter in buckets. In her first race after securing qualification for the Olympics, she suffered a bad crash and injured herself, "but just two weeks later she was racing down the downhill sections at the same speeds. She's very brave. There are no mental problems."
 
 
 
 
 
  Nor is she letting the head-lines about Beijing's notorious pollution get to her. The mountain bike event is being held in a park inside the smog-ridden Chinese capital. When some bikers spoke of racing with masks over their mouths, it seems they were only half joking. But Lisi says that she has banished such concerns to the back of her mind, reasoning that every competitor will be gulping down the same air. Exenberger agrees, and points to the Chinese promises to bring the pollution under control - although personally I'd bet on Lisi getting a medal ahead of that happening.

With or without smog - Lisi says it is a "very special feeling" to be representing Austria at the Olympics.

Her sport, which features improvisation, sprints, dramatic over-taking manouvres, risk-taking and the inevitable crashes could be one of the most colourful events to watch.

Lisi is racing on the 22nd of August, with her compatriot Christoph Soukup, the veteran Lower Austrian rider, at the start line the next day.

All photos: rutgerpauw.com/Red Bull Photofiles

More on Lisl Osl can be heard on the 7th of August in Connected (17-19)
 
 
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