The Planica World Cup cancellations this month brought the skiing world to the perilous edge of what it feared most, but hoped wouldn’t happen – the central focus of this ski season, and the sport’s biggest moment, the Olympics – affected by the Omicron COVID-19 variant. Over the last week in the Italian Alps, the sport went over that edge. This Olympics, as with everything in the world right now, will have to deal with the frustration, confusion, and all around uncertainty that’s de rigueur during this pandemic.
On January 23rd, NRK first reported that Norwegian national team sprint coach Arild Monsen had tested positive while at the team’s pre-Olympic camp in Seiser Alm, Italy. That set into motion a close contact, self-isolation, and testing regime with the stakes very clear – if athletes tested positive, suddenly the Olympics would be up in the air.
On Tuesday the 25th, despite the best efforts of the team, Heidi Weng and Anne Kjersti Kalvå tested positive for COVID. Close contact tracing led to an announcement from the Norwegian Ski Federation that the scheduled charter flights for the Norwegian Men’s Team on today were canceled.
The story has since followed two lines of development. First, new cases that are still emerging from the outbreak at the Norwegian National camp in Italy, and second, the Norwegian Ski Federation’s plans to get athletes to Beijing in time for their first competition on February 5th.
On the former the latest update, as reported again by NRK today, is that Simen Hegstad Krüger has tested positive for COVID. Krüger’s test is the first within 10 days of the start of Olympic competition, meaning that the 2018 gold medalist of 30-kilometer skiathlon will not get the chance to defend his title. The news has hit the Norwegian team hard. In a statement to NRK, teammate Hans Christer Holund said “It’s terribly sad. A lot of hard work is behind getting to the Olympics, then it goes in the sink, and it is very sad for Simen.”
As to travel plans, The Norwegian Ski Federation announced its updated plan to get their athletes to Ziangjiakou just hours ago. The men’s team will now fly direct from Verona, Italy to Beijing on a chartered flight on January 30th. The women’s team will follow suit out of Zurich, Switzerland on February 1st. That cuts out a trip back to Norway that was planned for the National Team before flying to Beijing. It also assumes no new infections in either the men’s or women’s teams. In NRK’s report, Espen Bjervig, National Team Manager, explained that the plan reflects “so many unknown factors. You never know what will turn up around the next turn. But you just have to cut through.”
Bjervig also pointed out that the plan is designed to move along with the COVID situation that is now underway in the Norwegian camp. “Fortunately, it is flexible with the girls. There are charter flights every day from Zurich between February 1st and 4th. The scheme for the boys presupposes that no infection appears.”
It is a big assumption, but one that allows there to be hope that for the individual athletes, and for ski fans alike, these Olympic games may be the exciting showcase of the world’s best skiers – many of whom are from Norway – that we have all looked forward to watching together.
Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.