Oslo’s boss blasts World Cup plans

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Oslo’s city government leader Raymond Johansen thinks it’s “crazy” to even think about hosting World Cup skiing competition at Holmenkollen in March, or an international football match either. He firmly rejects the state government’s support for sports officials’ plans to host such events, making it unlikely that skiers will be racing around or jumping at Holmenkollen any time soon.

World Cup events at Holmenkollen in March won a green light from Norway’s Conservatives-led government but loud protests from the head of Oslo’s city government. Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party claims it’s “crazy” to risk more imported infection and make exceptions for such an international event in the midst of the Corona crisis. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Morten Møst

“Hasn’t the government learned anything during the past year?” fumed Johansen after its minister in charge of culture and sports, Abid Raja, expressed support for various World Cup events in Norway starting next month. They come at a time when all travel is otherwise discouraged unless it’s “strictly necessary,” and when imported infection poses the biggest threat in the ongoing Corona crisis.

First in line is combined World Cup skiing and ski jumping at  Lillehammer February 12-14 followed by men’s alpine ski racing at Kvitfjell March 4-7 and cross-country skiing and ski jumping at Holmenkollen in Oslo March 12-14. Sports officials are also keen to host more World Cup events in Lillehammer and biathlon ski competition at Holmenkollen later in March. The events will be held without spectators allowed in the stands, but it’s not easy to keep Norwegian sports fans from showing up anyway.

Raja himself confirmed that the City of Oslo must give final approval for the events planned at Holmenkollen. That now seems unlikely given Johansen’s vehement objections. State health officials have already advised against hosting such events that involve lots of foreign athletes traveling into Norway even if they won’t have spectators in the grandstands. Johansen made it clear he’s not rolling out the welcome mat either.

‘Improbable’
“We are in a demanding and uncertain situation right now, and we shouldn’t be taking any chances,” Johansen told reporters after Raja announced on Friday that the state was inclined to make exceptions to national quarantine rules that would allow foreign athletes entry for World Cup competition. Johansen is especially afraid that the public will defy appeals to stay away and gather anyway. “That would be an extremely unwanted situation, so we must of course evaluate cancelling  this.”

Johansen was also furious that the government and Norwegian sports officials announced their desire to host the stream of World Cup events on the same day that he’d received confirmation of the new British strain of the Corona virus that ended up shutting down the entire Oslo metropolitan area.

Raymond Johansen, leader of Oslo’s city government, told state broadcaster NRK and other media that he utterly opposes hosting World Cup skiing at Holmenkollen in the midst of the ongoing Corona crisis. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“As the situation is right now, it’s completely improbable that Oslo can be part of arranging this (a World Cup at Holmenkollen),” Johansen said, citing urgent needs to prevent the risk of imported infection, get people vaccinated and try to prevent existing infection from spreading.

“We have a lot of other things to think about than arranging ski races,” Johansen said, with no lack of disdain.

Raja was clearly taken aback by Johansen’s angry reaction, noting that the event is still more than six weeks away and infection levels may be lower by then. He also claimed that strict infection control measures would be in place and he chided Johansen by telling newspaper Aftenposten that “I think Raymond should rather use his indoor voice than his outdoor voice.”

Last year’s annual ski jumping and racing competitions at Holmenkollen were held despite protests, but with all arenas closed and the public told to stay away. They didn’t, and there was lots of overcrowding on the metro line up to Holmenkollen and rowdy crowds along race routes.

Johansen clearly believes this year’s annual Holmenkollen Ski Festival should simply be cancelled, given the infection risk involved. “We’d have to evaluate halting all public transportation up there (to Holmenkollen, located in the hills above Oslo) and closing off outdoor areas (along the race routes),” Johansen said. He’s still angry that the government allowed the events to proceed last year “against the advice and wishes of the City of Oslo.” He now plans meetings with the event’s arrangers, making it clear, though, that it’s the last thing he has time for right now.

More support outside Oslo
Organizers in other venues aren’t nearly as negative as Johansen, but they also don’t have the same population size or infection rates. “We’re ready for World Cup events,” Lillehammer Mayor Ingunn Trosholmen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “It’s important for the sport, the arrangers and the joy of athletics. We will follow all infection prevention routines.”

The coach of the men’s national ski jumping team, Alexander Stöckl, was glad to hear that the state was open to hosting World Cup events in Norway and doesn’t share Johansen’s concerns. “I don’t think any other country is better prepared to arrange this in terms of infection protection and how it can be handled,” he said.

The athletes themselves are keen to compete on home turf also, with combined jumper and racer Jørgen Graabak telling NRK how three World Cup weekends and two national competitions have been held so far this season “without infection. So calling this ‘crazy’ is wrong.”

Norwegians made a World Cup comeback
Many of Norway’s own national cross-country skiers ironically opted against taking part in World Cup events in December themselves, when infection rates rose all over Europe, and they withdrew from the Tour de Ski. They made a major comeback last weekend, though, when both Norwegian men and women dominated the winners’ platforms once again: Therese Johaug won the 15-kilometer race at Lahti in Finland on Saturday with Helene Marie Fossesholm in second place and Heidi Weng third. Emil Iversen won the men’s 30-kilometer race followed by Sjur Røthe and Pål Golberg. The Norwegians’ gold, silver and bronze rush continued on Saturday, prompting commentator Petter Skinstad of TV2 to claim that “Norwegian participation undoubtedly raises the level of the World Cup, and markedly so.”

Johansen is more concerned about public health and ongoing Corona risk especially in Oslo, where most everything is closed except for grocery stores and pharmacies. Dr Bjørn Guldvog, head of the state health directorate, is, too, and advised against hosting World Cup events at a time when Norway’s borders otherwise are all but closed.

Guldvog declined to criticize the government, however, for opening up for visitors to Norway in connection with the World Cup. The directorate still characterizes the risk of imported infection as “high” and could rise more if exemptions are granted to groups, but Guldvog said it was “normal” for professional recommendations to be overlooked by political leaders who need to evaluate issues “at another level.” Sports wields huge power in Norway while Raja stresses that sports events held outdoors involve lower risk. Berit Kjøll, president of the national athletics federation, claimed she was “humble and grateful” for the government’s support while Erik Røste, president of the skiing federation, claimed he was confident “that we can arrange this in a good manner.”

Raja also gave a green light for a World Cup football qualifying match between Norway and Turkey at Oslo’s Ullevål Stadium on March 27, “as long as infection protection measures are followed, that the infection situation at that point is manageable and that the match is held with no spectators or a limited number allowed at that time.” Johansen doesn’t welcome that event, either.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund