Sweden’s skiing sensation hopes for glory

Sweden's latest skiing sensation has a long way to go if he is to hope to emulate either legendary compatriot Ingemar Stenmark or Italian Alberto Tomba.

But Jens Byggmark, 21, has already shown that he has what it takes to bring slalom glory to the hosts of the world ski championships.

Two-time World Cup winner Anja Pärson has, despite a mediocre season in the World Cup, been hogging all the headlines in the run-up to the February 3-18 competition.

But that’s only natural for the Olympic slalom champion – who has a mountain, the ‘Anjabacken’, and a day named after her in her native Sweden.

Markus Larsson and Andre Myhrer have been flying the flags for the men up till now, but by the end of the championships the Swedes could have a new hero on their hands.

Byggmark made a scorching entry on what is his first World Cup season less than two weeks ago when he won two slaloms in a row at Kitzbuhel, Austria.

Days later, he proved those performances were no fluke by finishing second behind Austria’s Olympic slalom and giant slalom champion Benjamin Raich at Schladming, Austria.

It propelled him to the top of the World Cup slalom standings, where he leads Raich by 58 points and another Austrian, Mario Matt, by 103 points.

Byggmark, who has work to do on his giant slalom technique, and even more to do on his downhill, insists there’s an explanation for his relatively sudden emergence.

“I had a fantastic year on the European Cup last year, and we’re fortunate enough to have good coaches,” said Byggmark, who placed sixth in his debut World Cup race in Finland.

“But also my self-confidence has been growing from competition to competition.”

Byggmark might appear to have an advantage in hailing from Tärnaby, the town in Lapland that is the home of Pärson.

More notably, it is also the home of Stenmark – who with an unequalled 86 World Cup victories is regarded as one of the world’s all-time skiing greats. There is also a mountain named the ‘Ingemarbacken’.

But whatever his heritage, Byggmark’s success is already beginning to have positive effects.

Pärson admitted a few days ago: “When Jens started doing well in the slalom the younger skiers at the club had another skier to look up to.

“Now that he’s winning races, they might have to think about having a Jens Byggmark day too!”

Byggmark will not begin his quest for medals here until Thursday when he competes in the super-combined, which comprises a downhill and a slalom.

But after his recent World Cup podiums, it’s in the slalom that the Swede

will be looking for gold.

“It’s unbelievable to me that now I’m one of the favourites (for the slalom),” said Byggmark, who will be up against Raich, Matt and a few other elder slalom statesmen on February 17.

“I’m not sure how to handle the pressure, but I will be trying my best.”


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.