SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — Just a fraction of the talk in the buildup to this weekend’s Alpine skiing World Cup opening has been about who will win the races or if Mikaela Shiffrin and Marco Odermatt are going to dominate the season again.
The main topic is whether in times of global warming a winter sport season should still start as early as October.
Amid growing environmental concerns surrounding the sport, the World Cup has its traditional start with two giant slaloms on a glacier in Austria coming up, with the women racing on Saturday and the men on Sunday.
Those are the first two in a series of 90 races until mid-March, evenly divided between women and men, making for the busiest season in the 57-year history of the World Cup.
In a season not interrupted by Olympics or world championships, the calendar includes the first cross-border downhills from Zermatt in Switzerland to Cervinia in Italy in November, which were canceled when they were first scheduled last year.
The men’s circuit includes a second North American sweep again in Palisades Tahoe and Aspen in February and March. They also race in Beaver Creek in November, when the women visit Killington and new Canadian World Cup venue Tremblant.
A regular venue like Zagreb does not show up in the calendar anymore, since its low altitude has caused the Croatian organizers more and more trouble in recent years in preparing a course suitable for World Cup races.
Low altitude is not the problem in Soelden with its start at three kilometers above sea level — but enough snow is.
After an uncharacteristically warm start to the month and a subsequent lack of fresh snow, local organizers prepared the course over the past weeks by transporting 45,000 cubic meters of preserved snow from last spring to the hill to cover the 1.2-kilometer-long racecourse. Artificial snow has been added on top of that layer by 22 snow cannons blazing for two days and two nights along the track.
Protect Our Winters, a Colorado-based non-profit organization focused on environmental issues, said Thursday on its Instagram page that this weekend’s event was “a race held far too early, the run out created from glacier ice and artificial snow.”
The organization posted an image of the Soelden track — a white stripe down the brown, rocky hill on a dark, rainy day — with the text “Move the date,” adding they “demand FIS move the race calendar to suit the climate.”
Earlier this year, an open letter urging the International Ski and Snowboard Federation to become more transparent about its strategy for the future of the sport amid the climate change challenges was signed by hundreds of skiers — including Shiffrin, but not Odermatt.
The Swiss standout, the two-time defending World Cup overall champion, is not sure yet that the season should start later.
“Soelden has never been a real winter race, it shouldn’t be. Soelden is the season opener, a wakeup call for the ski industry and the fans that we are starting again,” said Odermatt, who won the race in the past two years, and each time went on to win the overall title.
“For me, one of the most important reasons (to sign the open letter) is to have a call to action and for transparency and progress through this topic. It is so dear to us, winter is the most important thing in our sports,” the American said.
Shiffrin is coming off another record-breaking World Cup season, in which she passed Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark’s best mark of 86 career victories.
Now on 88, the next milestone of 100 career wins might sound like a stretch for the current season, but the American has won 12 races or more in a single season three times before in her career.
That includes last season, when she had 14 wins and gathered a personal best of 2,206 points, almost 1,000 points more than second-ranked Lara Gut Behrami. The Swiss skier, alongside Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova and Italy’s Federica Brignone, will likely be among Shiffrin’s closest challengers again.
Shiffrin has won the season opener two times — most recently in 2021. The women's race was called off last year.
On the men’s side, Odermatt also had a record-breaking season when he became the first male skier to score more than 2,000 points.
Like Shiffrin, Odermatt ended the season with a massive lead, as Norwegians Aleksander Aamodt Kilde and Henrik Kristoffersen trailed by more than 700 and nearly 900 points in second and third, respectively.
Odermatt is a strong favorite again in Sunday’s race, as he has been on the podium in all giant slaloms he competed in since winning the season opener two years ago.
Eric Willemsen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/eWilmedia
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