Mild winters put ski events at risk

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As this weekend’s Holmenkollen Ski Festival unfolds in the hills above Oslo, it’s become increasingly clear that organizing such major winter sports events has become a risky sport in itself. A lack of snow, fluctuating temperatures and predictions of rain on Saturday and Sunday make conditions highly unpredictable, adding expense, tensions and questions over whether it’s all worthwhile.

Oslo's Holmenkollen Ski Jump is the centerpiece of the annual Holmenkollen Ski Festival, but a near chronic lack of natural snow is raising concerns every year. PHOTO: Oslo kommune

Oslo’s Holmenkollen Ski Jump is the centerpiece of the annual Holmenkollen Ski Festival, but a near chronic lack of natural snow is raising concerns every year. PHOTO: Oslo kommune

Holmenkollen is rooted in tradition, and spectators generally turn up no matter what the weather is like. This year the Holmenkollen Ski Festival is even being held more than a month earlier than usual, in February, when the chances for snow and less fog are better than in March when the event is usually held. The move to February, however, was made because the Holmenkollen venue will also be the site of the World Biathlon Championships in March.

Organizers of both events have had more than a few headaches with their preparations, mostly because winter has been on the wane for years. The Holmenkollen festival, scheduled to run through Sunday, depends on wintry conditions, since it consists of four events that are part of the FIS World Cup in ski jumping, combined skiing and jumping, and cross-country racing. There’s also a special youth competition.

Crisis plans mounted
The challenge has been to prepare and maintain ski trails when precious little natural snow is falling in the middle of winter. Officials at the local ski association Skiforeningen had to mount a variety of crisis plans because of another mostly mild weather so far this season.

Temperatures above the freezing point, which have been common since November, simply make it hard to produce snow, and that was plaguing organizers until last week. The full effect of the snow canons can only come with temperatures of minus 7-8C, according to ski association officials, and last week’s spate of warm weather was problematic. This week, temperatures dipped back below the freezing point, but ski association officials have faced the prospect of importing snow from the mountains around Sjusjøen and Rena, a long and expensive drive from Oslo.

“It’s very troubling that we’re getting less and less snow,” former cross-country star Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset told newspaper Dagsavisen recently. “It’s sad when so many competitive events have to take place on articial snow. The weather challenges are enormous at present.”

Skiforeningen produced 4,000 cubic meters of artificial snow before Christmas, but most of that melted. Then came a welcome cold snap, but not very much snow. The snow canons have been working overtime since, to prepare for Holmenkollen.

Biathlon concerns, too
Then another challenge looms: Oslo is also hosting the World Biathlon Championships from March 3-13 and organizers face the same problems as those putting on Holmenkollen. Even the Youth Olympics set for later this month in the inland city of Lillehammer, where winter is far more stable, has been threatened by a lack of snow there as well.

The City of Oslo has had to mount guarantees there will be enough snow for the World Championships. “We’re providing the facilities (at Holmenkollen), with snow, no matter what it costs,” Rina Mariann Hansen, Oslo’s top politician in charge of sports and culture. Some early victories this season for Norwegian biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjørndalen set off a rush of ticket sales just before Christmas, good news for organizers who also were strugglig with some other financial concerns along with the lack of snow.

“Folks are working hard so that the sport of skiing will survive,” Hjelmeset told Dagsavisen. “But it frankly doesn’t look good for snow conditions at lower elevations in the years ahead.”

The Holmenkollen Ski Festival, meanwhile, opened Thursday with women’s ski jumping, which saw Norwegian Maren Lundby placing second with an impressive jump of 140 meters but trailing Sara Takanashi of Japan who dominated in both length and style.

The men were due be qualifying for ski jumping on Friday while on Saturday, Nordic Combined ski jumping would begin at 10am before the men set off on the tough 50-kilometer race at 12:15pm. The women were set to race 30 kilometers on Sunday at 12:15, before the men’s ski jumping finals begin at 2:15pm, events that always attract members of Norway’s royal family as spectators.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund