Swedish media hails golden Anja

It took four years for Anja Pärson to win an Olympic title - but even before winning the slalom gold medal the achievements of the powerhouse skier from Sweden have been cast in stone.

Pärson’s gold medal victory, her first Olympic crown after taking a silver and bronze in 2002 and two bronzes here, was Sweden’s first in alpine at the Games since Pernilla Wiberg won the combined gold at Lillehammer in 1994.

On Thursday Swedish media said she conquered her inner demons to win her longed-for first Olympic gold medal in the women’s slalom, heaping praise on the 24-year-old “blue-and-yellow King Kong”.

“Anja Pärson found the perfect harmony and her equipment, body and mind joined together to become a winning unit in the slalom event. That led to the longed-for Olympic gold and now Anja has won everything there is to win,” Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet wrote.

“Her worst opponent has been inside her own helmet. But yesterday she skied without demons, without any thoughts of Janica Kostelic or the Olympic gold. She stood alone in the starting gate. Empty. Whole,” daily Aftonbladet wrote.

The victory was marked by one of Pärson’s trademark belly dives on the snow, and followed by phone calls from the King of Sweden and Ingemar Stenmark, the Swedish ski legend who is a neighbour of the 24-year-old.

If the King calling you is something of a rarity, the other call seemed logical: both Stenmark and Pärson hail from Tärnaby, population approximately 1000, location 100km south of the Arctic Circle.

To the Swedes, and most ski racing enthusiasts, Stenmark is the most successful skier in history.

He won the World Cup slalom and giant slalom titles eight times each, two Olympic gold medals in 1980 – four years after winning Olympic bronze – and he dominated a record 86 World Cup races.

The feats of the ‘Silent Swede’ led to a mountain being named in his honour and Pärson, who throughout her life has been coached by her devoted father Anders, grew up skiing on the ‘Ingemarbacken’.

It speaks volumes that even before winning Olympic gold, she was already skiing on the ‘Anjabacken’.

The bigger picture might show that she has often played second fiddle to 24-year-old Croatian rival Janica Kostelic, who at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City dominated Pärson by winning three golds and one silver medal.

Kostelic added a fourth gold here, defending her combined crown and winning silver in the super-G.

In that time Pärson has responded by amassing 32 World Cup victories, two overall World Cup titles – arguably the biggest prize in alpine skiing – and adding to her maiden world championship crown in 2001 with another three titles.

Before the Games she also became one of the few skiers to win in all four World Cup disciplines – a feat that even Stenmark, for all his greatness, could not boast of.

Her concentration on the World Cup’s crystal globe nevertheless had negative side effects.

Pärson admitted it took her focus off setting out to enjoy winning races, an ailment she remedied shortly before arriving at the Olympics.

She began here with a bronze in the downhill, won by Austria’s Michaela Dorfmeister, and took another bronze in the combined behind Kostelic.

On Wednesday, Pärson’s past caught up with her in the best way possible.

“I just wanted to find that look in my eye again, to go down the racehill like I did when I was young,” she said.

With a golden glint in her eye, Pärson’s determination did the rest. And another gold medal, perhaps in the women’s giant slalom on Friday, is not out of the question.

But when it comes to being likened to Stenmark, the bubbly blond-haired Swede quickly becomes the youngster who skied so enthusiastically in and out of the slalom poles on the Ingemarbacken.

“It’s too big for me to tie Ingemar,” she said shortly after speaking to Stenmark by telephone.

“He’s my idol. I’m just a small girl from a small town in Sweden.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe it’s true.”

But there may still be more to come.

“It’s probably not over yet. Her chances of winning the giant slalom on Friday just grew monstrously. Kostelic will have to do battle with a blue-and-yellow King Kong,” Svenska Dagbladet predicted.

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INTERVIEW: Swedish doctor on the state of the coronavirus in ski resorts

Sweden's government has decided to leave its ski resorts open during the current 'sports holiday', despite concerns that this could lead to rising infections. The Local spoke to Anders Lindblom, the infectious disease doctor in Dalarna, about how it is going in the region's ski resorts.

INTERVIEW: Swedish doctor on the state of the coronavirus in ski resorts
The Lindvallen ski resort in Sälen is busy this week. Photo: Gustaf Månsson/SvD/TT

The annual 'sportlov' school break kicked off last week and will run through the first two weeks of March, with the exact week varying depending on where in Sweden you live. In a normal year, a lot of families use this break to go skiing in the Swedish mountains. At the time of writing, the ski resorts remain open, but the Public Health Agency has issued guidelines on how to travel safely – although some regions advise against travelling at all.

What's the current situation in Dalarna [a region in central Sweden and home to popular ski resort Sälen]?

We don't have the highest incidence in Sweden. The cases have been increasing a little bit over the last three weeks from a relatively low level, but the travel obviously makes it difficult to foresee what's coming. So I'm a little bit worried about what's going to happen.

What are your worries?

I hope it won't happen, but if the cases increase in the ski resorts, they're going to take their disease back to their home counties, and if we see a lot of increase in those counties, it could mean more patients in hospital.

We're in the second week of the 'sport holiday', how has it been going so far?

It's going fairly well. We had a meeting with the Public Health Agency and the regional government today. In the ski resorts in Dalarna, they are following the rules pretty well, but when they go shopping on the way to the ski resorts, it gets crowded in the shops and in the petrol stations on the way up.

So what are you going to do about this? Are you going to recommend that people shop before they travel up?

We've done that before, but we're going to repeat that message again. We're going to repeat it in Dalarna, and also the Public Health Agency is going to issue it as a national recommendation.

What will it take for the sport holiday not to lead to a surge in infections?

It's very important that people follow the rules in the ski resorts, to keep their distance and avoid crowded areas, especially indoors.

I don't think the problem is outside. If you're outside, the risk of spreading the disease is minimal. The high risk is crowded places indoors – shops and restaurants – and so far, it's not crowded in the restaurants, and the ski lounges are closed during the day.

If you just stay with your family or your travel companions when you're indoors, it's not that risky. It's when you have parties with other people, and mix with other people, that there's a problem. Then it can spread from one travelling company to another.

If a family go up there, get sick, take a test and go home, that's not going to spread the disease.

Anders Lindblom is the infectious diseases doctor for Dalarna. Photo: Region Dalarna

If you had been able to decide, would you have wanted the ski resorts to close?

I can't decide myself whether people can travel. If the government and the Public Health Agency allow travelling, what I can do is make it as safe as possible for people to be in the ski resorts.

So I'm having a lot of discussions with the companies up there, at the lifts, and at the hotels, and at the shops, so that not too many people go in there, that they can rent skis outdoors, and to make sure that the restaurants follow the rules.

As far as we see right now, the spread of Covid-19 is not that extensive. But I think there's a risk that people don't follow the rules.

How are you getting the message out so far?

From the ski resorts, when people are booking their trip there, or the hotel or a cabin, they get the message from the vendors, and we repeat the message whenever we get interviewed, and I think the Public Health Agency are going to repeat the message when they speak to the media on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


People skiing in Sälen on Tuesday. Photo: Gustaf Månsson/SvD/TT

A cluster of the variant first discovered in South Africa has been found in Sälen. Is there a risk the resort could become a centre point for growth of that particular variant?

We saw some spread among the inhabitants in Sälen, but that is going down. We don't know about the tourists.

What could it mean for the spread of that particular variant? If there's so many people coming in and out of the resort, is there a risk that it could really get established?

I think it's already established. The risk is that it's going to spread around Sweden. That's the problem, and it could be that when people from Dalarna go on their spring vacation, they can get affected and spread it when they come home as well.

What's coming next? Are there new recommendations on the way?

We discussed the situation with the Public Health Agency on Friday, and we did it yesterday [Monday] and today [Tuesday] as well. They are going to talk to the government, and see what they should do. 

I think they're going to tighten up the restrictions that we already have, that's for sure. I'm not sure if they're going to make any new restrictions.

When do you expect the new restrictions?

The Public Health Agency has told us that it is going to be this week.

What other actions have you taken? 

We have a lot of test stations in the ski resorts, so you can go there and get tested every day. I think we have four test stations. What we are advising people to do is, if you get sick, get a test, and stay home until you get a result. If it's positive, then then you should go home.

So I suppose the big test will be when Stockholm has its sport holiday next week?

We had Gothenburg last week, and we have Skåne this week. There have been a lot of people in the ski resorts this week and last week, but maybe it's going to be more people next week.