Vasaloppet organizers hope for cold weekend weather

Cross-country ski enthusiasts in Sweden are gearing up for the 85th Vasaloppet ski race on Sunday, in which 15,000 skiers will compete across a punishing 90-kilometre course.

Vasaloppet organizers hope for cold weekend weather

“Things are looking really good. So far we’ve had the best winter in years with lots of snow,” race chief Bo Johansson told AFP.

“Now we’re just hoping for colder temperatures, because when you have nearly 15,000 skiers starting in a single race you really need the cold to keep the tracks in good shape.”

That wish just might come true, with the national meteorological institute SMHI predicting that temperatures at the starting line should drop from around freezing on Thursday to about minus seven degrees Celsius on Sunday.

Inspired by a flight by Sweden’s future king Gustav Vasa, who was locked in a life and death struggle against invading Danes in 1521, the event covers the 90-kilometre-stretch between Sälen and Mora in western Sweden near the Norwegian border.

The first race took place in 1922 and has been held nearly every year since then.

Up until a few years ago, the number of participants steadily grew, but Johansson said the horde of people signing up appeared to have stagnated at around 48,000 for the whole week of different activities, and between 14,000 and 15,000 for the main race.

“The problem is there have been a lot of green winters in central and southern Sweden in recent years, which makes it difficult to get new skiers involved. Someone who today buys ski equipment for 10,000 kronor ($1,100) wants to be able to use it for more than a race,” he explained.

This year, a total of 14,896 people will start in the main race.

While most of them are Swedes, 39 other nationalities will also be represented, with some coming from as far away as China, New Zealand, Pakistan and the desert state of the United Arab Emirates.

The Vasaloppet record is held by Peter Göransson who finished the course in three hours, 38 minutes and 57 seconds in 1998, which translates into a fearsome average speed of around 25 kilometres per hour.

This kind of athletic exploit has enhanced the Vasaloppet’s reputation as one of the great European events of the winter season, attracting increasing numbers of world class skiers.

While Swedish sport fans admire the world-class level of Sunday’s top skiers, they still cherish the traditional role of the Vasaloppet as a fun run for all ages and levels, which is its great attraction to ordinary, and not so ordinary, Swedes.

“Most people take this seriously and prepare, but not everyone. The most extreme case I’ve seen is a skier who started looking for skis to buy the evening before the race. That’s probably not too smart,” Johansson said.

The race is not completely without its risks. On average, one person dies during the week of Vasaloppet activities, Johansson said, adding that in most cases it was a person with pre-existing medical conditions.

“In most cases they’ve felt that something was wrong before they started,” he said, pointing out that a 63-year-old man who died earlier this week in a race had told a friend he had chest pains ahead of time.

He said studies had shown that, due to the exercise involved, people who take part in Vasaloppet live longer than others.

“But I guess on the actual day of the race they live a bit more dangerously than people watching it on television.”


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.