New Zealand is a minnow in the world of elite winter sports, but a record contingent at the 20th Winter Olympic Games starting this weekend has given athletes and officials some reason for optimism.

It will be a major surprise if any of the 18 New Zealand athletes in Turin, Italy figure in the chase for medals over the 16-day event.

But that won't be a true measure of the progress being made on the slopes, ice rinks and chutes of the world by a relatively young group according to chef de mission Tomas Huppert.

"These are the Olympic Games so you can never predict what's going to happen," Huppert said.

"Our athletes are getting better and better. They come here knowing full well they are competing against the very best in the world but they are all becoming more experienced themselves.

"The experience of competing here will be absolutely invaluable."

Qualifying criteria has been no easier than other Games, yet New Zealand's previous biggest team was a comparatively small 11 at the Salt Lake City Games four years ago.

Huppert and others at the top end of winter sport are convinced there has been genuine improvement in quality and depth, the result of a more streamlined high performance programme aided by increased government and commercial funding.

With a long period of qualifying behind them, Huppert hoped the atmosphere that has built to a crescendo in Turin this week would impact in the right way mentally on New Zealand's athletes.

"You can feel the tempo, it's ramping up for the opening. The city is looking beautiful and it's ready," Huppert said ahead of the opening ceremony on Saturday morning (NZ time).

"Before Christmas no one in New Zealand would have known the Olympics were on but here, television is giving coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"You think rugby is big in New Zealand, winter sport here is huge. It's a privilege to be part of it."

Theft


The Games are a logistical nightmare for Huppert and his small team, not made any easier by the theft of $20,000 worth of officials' gear during the trip from New Zealand.

Huppert must oversee athletes at three different venues in a 100km radius around Turin and is constantly helping the coaches of each discipline in their quest for sufficient training time at venues.

"The biggest thing in Italy is to be patient. You have to do it the Italian way," he laughed.

New Zealand's participation begins on Sunday night (NZ time) when snowboarder Mitchell Brown contests the men's halfpipe. He's followed a day later by sister Kendall -- at 16 New Zealand's second youngest ever Winter Olympian -- and Juliane Bray in the women's halfpipe.

Bray recently found herself on a world cup podium while the Browns have recorded top 15 finishes.

On Wednesday the New Zealand curling team of skip Sean Becker, Lorne de Pape, Hans Frauenlob, Dan Mustapic and Warren Dobson will begin 10 days of intense competition with the first round-robin matches against the United States and Finland.

The curlers qualified 10 months ago by finishing eighth at the world championship in Canada.

Since then they have competed handily in a number of international events, including at a recent tournament in Japan where they lost the final to gold medal favourites Canada.

Skeleton racers Louise Corcoran and Ben Sandford -- the nephew of former world skeleton champion Bruce Sandford -- are in action late next week, where the random nature of the sport could see them feature.

The only connection to the 2002 Games comes in the Bobsleigh, where four of the five-strong team -- Alan Henderson, Matt Dallow, Stephen Harrison and Angus Ross -- were members of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games team in Salt Lake City. Henderson and Ross were also at the 1998 Games in Nagano.

They are joined by Aaron Orangi to form combinations in both the two and four-man disciplines.

The New Zealand alpine skiers won't hit the slope until the second week, with Nicola Campbell featuring in both the Super-G and giant slalom.

A repeat of Annelise Coberger's slalom silver medal at the 1992 Games in Albertville -- this country's only winter Games medal -- is not on the cards but Campbell at her best won't be out of her depth.

The Dunedin allrounder, 20, was third in an FIS giant slalom event at France last month, pushing her world ranking to about 200th.

The other skiers are Auckland grand slalom exponent Erika McLeod and Oamaru's Mickey Ross, who will be the last New Zealander in action at the Games in the slalom on February 26.

Schedule for NZ competitors (Italian time, 12 hours behind NZT):

Feb 12: Snowboarding - men's halfpipe qualifying (Mitchell Brown), 10pm

Feb 13: Snowboarding - men's halfpipe final, 2am. Snowboarding - women's halfpipe qualifying (Juliane Bray, Kendall Brown), 10pm

Feb 14: Snowboarding - women's halfpipe final, 2am

Feb 15: Curling - NZ (Sean Becker, Lorne de Pape, Hans Frauenlob, Dan Mustapic, Warren Dobson) v United States, 2am; NZ v Finland, 9pm.

Feb 17: Skeleton - women (Louise Corcoran), 5.30am. Curling - NZ v Switzerland, 2am. Snowboarding - women's cross qualifying, 10pm.

Feb 18: Snowboarding - women's snowboarder cross finals, 2am. Skeleton - men (Ben Sandford), 5.30am. Curling - NZ v Italy, 7am.

Feb 19: Bobsleigh - two-man heats (Alan Henderson, Matt Dallow, Stephen Harrison, Aaron Orangi, Angus Ross), 5.30am. Curling - NZ v Norway, 9pm. Alpine skiing - women's Super-G (Nicola Campbell), midnight.

Feb 20: Bobsleigh - two-man heats, 5.30am.

Feb 21: Curling - NZ v Germany, 2am; tiebreaker session, 9pm

Feb 23: Curling - men's semifinals.

Feb 24: Alpine skiing - women's giant slalom (Nicola Campbell, Erika McLeod) 9.30pm

Feb 25: Curling - men's final, 1am, and bronze medal match, 5.30am. Bobsleigh - four-man heats (Alan Henderson, Matt Dallow, Stephen Harrison, Aaron Orangi, Angus Ross), 5.30am

Feb 26: Alpine skiing - men's slalom (Mickey Ross), 3am. Bobsleigh - four-man heats, 5.30am.

- NZPA