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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Corona spoils the Holmenkollen party

One of Norway’s biggest outdoor parties of the year has been spoiled at the last minute, after local authorities ordered a shutdown of all arenas for Oslo’s annual Holmenkollen Ski Festival and World Cup competition this weekend. The ski races and ski jumping will go on, but the grandstands will remain empty after the public was told to stay away in the interest of public health.

The grandstands at Oslo’s Holmenkollen Ski Jump will be just as empty this weekend as they were during preparations for World Cup competition on Thursday. PHOTO: Møst

Skiing- and ski-jumping stars from around the world had hoped thousands would defy Corona virus concerns to cheer them on. On Friday evening, however, city officials announced they were sorry, but they felt obliged to cancel the party around the competition before it began.

Svein Lyngroth of Oslo health department said he and colleagues at the state health directorate and the public health institute (Folkehelseinstituttet) were most concerned about how fans would have been most likely to travel up to Holmenkollen in the hills above Oslo. The vast majority would take the metro (T-bane), which is always packed on Holmenkollen weekend.

The metro cars, they feared, could turn into a prime source of infection, even moreso on the way home when many of the fans may be intoxicated. Drunkeness and disorder has plagued Holmenkollen crowds in recent years, and the authorities wanted to reduce the risk of Corona exposure as much as possible as the virus spreads in Norway. More than 30 new cases were reported on Thursday, bringing the total number of Norwegians testing positive to the virus to 89 from just one last week.

Svein Lyngroth, flanked by colleagues in the city and state health departments, announced they were closing the arenas at the Holmenkollen Ski Festival in an effort to contain the spread of the Corona virus. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Lyngroth apologized for the decision made, saying that “we understand many people are disappointed,” but adding that “we feared drunk fans wouldn’t follow the advice we’ve distributed to avoid being exposed to Corona.” Dr Svein Lie of the state health directorate called the decision “difficult,” since Holmenkollen is a national event “that’s almost sacred” after being held for nearly 130 years.

Organizers had made it clear themselves that they had no plans to cancel the annual festivities at Holmenkollen, which include qualifying competitions on Friday, combined jumping and skiing events and a women’s 30-kilometer race on Saturday, plus a men’s 50-kilometer race and the classic Holmenkollen World Cup ski jumping for men and women (now called Raw Air) on Sunday.

Events already had kicked off on Wednesday with sprint races at Konnerud near Drammen, which Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo won with an impressive comeback after losing some of his drive earlier in the season. The World Cup sprint has normally been held in downtown Drammen, but this year’s lack of snow forced its move up to a higher elevation that still required snow trucked in from Kongsberg.

Holmenkollen organizers also had plenty of other worries this season given a lack of snow in the hills around Oslo as well. Unusually high temperatures also made it difficult if not impossible to manufacture artificial snow. That forced crews to truck snow up to Holmenkollen as well, and spread it around the shortest trail ever created for the long-distance races: newspaper Aftenposten reported that skiers will have to go around and around a 6.2 kilometer trail eight times, instead of heading out into the forest on Holmenkollen’s traditional 25- and 50-kilometer trails.

A lone skier was out training on the trails around Holmenkollen Thursday. There won’t be any cheering fans along the trains during competition this weekend either. PHOTO: Møst

Kristin Vestgren Sæterøy, manager of the Holmenkollen Ski Festival, had told Aftenposten earlier in the week that it would be a “turbo race,” but with “the advantage that they’ll have lots more cheering fans along the entire route, and be much closer to the public.” Now they won’t.

Sæterøy seemed both stunned and saddened by the official decision Thursday evening to close the arenas and discourage fans from heading up to Holmenkollen: “We understand and respect the decision that’s been taken,” she told state broadcaster NRK, but she called it “incredibly unfortunate” and warned it would have grave economic consequences. There were no immediate plans for refunds of the roughly 20,000 tickets sold in advance, while concessionaires faced huge losses on unsold food, drink and souvenirs.

“There’s a huge economic challenge here, with many involved, also insurance firms,” Sæterøy said. “We’ll have to get back to that, together with the city (which formally owns the Holmenkollen ski jump and sports complex).”

She noted how 37,000 people attended last year’s Holmenkollen races and organizers were hoping for an increase this year. With the lack of snow melting even some enthusiastic Norwegians’ interest in skiing, and then Corona concerns, that had already seemed unlikely. Even before Thursday night’s announcement, public health officials had been urging anyone sick, whether with Corona or any other contagious flu or cold, to stay home. Officials at the state public health institute also debated whether it was responsible to let the large public event proceed, and they had the power to stop it.

‘Very sad, drastic’
Holmenkollen, meanwhile, was busy with preparations and training sessions on Thursday for 350 athletes from 32 countries. Even as other sports events were being cancelled worldwide, or held without spectators, the athletes had expected the event to proceed as usual, hoping the Corona virus wouldn’t scare healthy fans away. Norwegian skiing star Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who won the men’s 50k race at Holmenkollen in both 2016 and 2017 called the decision to ban fans “very sad” and “drastic.” He was disappointed at the prospect of competing without any spectators.

“There are so far relatively few cases (of the Corona virus) in Norway, and this could have been held without problems,” he believed, adding that he nonetheless understood the officials’ decision. “Being more objective, there have been other drastic measures (elsewhere) and it may have seemed quite strange if they took the chance of having 20,000 people crammed onto the T-bane up to Holmenkollen,” Sundby told NRK. “So I can understand their (the officials’) evaluation.”

Skier Emil Iversen said he wasn’t sure all the racers would be able to complete the rough 50K race without fans to cheer them on. He wondered how he’d manage to motivate himself when he runs out of steam.

Ski jumper Maren Lundby was also disappointed, but said she respected the decision. “It’s of course too bad that there won’t be any spectators,” she told NRK, “but this is something that’s been decided by people who know much better than us.”

‘Boring TV’ if the Norwegians win everyting again
Sports commentators were already worrying that all those watching the events on TV instead of in person may get bored if the Norwegians are as dominant on the ski trails as they’ve been all season. Even Norwegian fans have begun to complain that watching cross-country skiing has become boring because the Norwegians (not least Therese Johaug) win all the time, and often crowd the entire winners’ platform, with Johaug sharing it with the likes of Heidi Weng and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg.

Fans’ frustration and comments prompted Johaug to complain last week that she was sorry to actually hear some claim that she was “ruining” the sport, simply because she’s so good and no one can beat her. “I feel like I have to defend myself, because I ski fast,” the 31-year-old Johaug told reporters after winning the recent Ski Tour in Trondheim. “It’s frustrating.”

Her teammates support her, with Østberg telling Aftenposten that “it’s not Therese’s fault that she’s good,” then realizing what she said and correcting herself to say “she may be blamed for being good, but she shouldn’t be criticized for that.” Berglund



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