Steps lead down into the depths, to where people from two different sides meet who are actually not supposed to meet. Another long corridor, past parking spaces for cars and once around the corner, then three men and four women in uniform ski jackets and with black mouth and nose protection approach. This bizarre scene is somewhat reminiscent of an agent thriller with conspiratorial meetings in the underground. Sölden may well be familiar with this genre, after all, the community in the Ötztal was the location of the James Bond film “Specter” – but no film is made in the hotel’s winding underground car park, it is the interview zone set up by the organizer of the Alpine Ski World Cup for this very special start into the new alpine season.
At the press conference of the German team, nobody has to worry that the distance rules will not be observed. Only two television crews and two journalists came here. “Strange” – strange, thinks Lena Dürr. The ski racer from Germering is already in Sölden for the ninth time and will start this Saturday as one of four German athletes in the giant slalom. “It’s so quiet here.” She says not only in the underground car park, especially in town.
In the days before the first ski races, Sölden is usually very busy. The first (party) tourists have already arrived and are getting in the mood for the weekend in the relevant après-ski bars, which are called »Bierhimmel«, »Hasenstall« or »Rodelhütte«. The ski companies present their athletes, crowded in sports shops or at press conferences. And on the road up to Sölden, starting on Thursday afternoon, you can only move forward at walking pace.
The »Bierhimmel«, »Hasenstall« and »Rodelhütte« are now closed. Many hotels as well and two of the three supermarkets. There are hardly any tourists up here in the Ötztal. The athletes should only leave the hotels in their cars, to drive up the glacier or to the underground car park for a media appointment. It is the same for journalists, marketers, service people – all those who accompany the Ski World Cup. It’s not that easy this season. Whoever wants to be there has to be tested and is only allowed to eat and live where the organizers allow it. All groups are strictly separated. The test, which must not be older than 72 hours, can be done on site if necessary – for 85 euros in a laboratory on wheels that is located by the gondola lift. The result is there after three hours, at least most of the time.
The season opener in Sölden with the tightened hygiene concept is something of a test run – and the Tyroleans and the FIS World Ski Association are careful that nothing really goes wrong. The World Cup and the races are “existential” for all of skiing, explains Wolfgang Maier, Alpinchef in the German Ski Association (DSV). Because after a winter without a World Cup, 80 to 90 percent of the associations would no longer exist, he is certain. He knows: “You fight for survival.” Especially since the corona conditions mean additional financial expenses for the associations. The DSV estimates around 1.2 million euros for the test measures in all disciplines alone this winter. The athletes have to be tested every three days on the way from one World Cup to another. That is a major logistical challenge. The association is therefore working with the Technical University of Munich on a concept “how the tests can be brought to the required laboratories in order to meet the tight deadlines,” explains Maier.
The athletes play along without grumbling, what else can they do? “The main thing,” says Lena Dürr, “we can drive.” So on Saturday and Sunday, the focus should be on sport again – in the first races since mid-March. At that time, the season was canceled a week before the final.
The new winter begins with a turning point, especially for German women. With the resignation of Viktoria Rebensburg, the team is now missing a winning driver. “The expectations,” says head coach Jürgen Graller, “are of course different now.” Lower ones, he says. “But it can also be a huge opportunity.” For those who have so far been in the shadow of the 2010 Olympic champion – like Kira Weidle, who has already achieved a few podium places in the downhill. In the giant slalom, on the other hand, it still looks a bit gloomy. Dürr’s strengths are more in slalom. And the other three starters, Jessica Hilzinger, Andrea Filser and debutante Lisa Loipetssperger, are just at the beginning of their World Cup careers.
Maier, however, is confident that they will be able to develop the three young athletes as well as Marlene Schmotz, who has just been cured from a cruciate ligament rupture, and the injured Martina Willibald into top ten drivers in the next few years. “That doesn’t mean that we can compete with Mikaela Shiffrin ad hoc, but we definitely have the potential to counter this.” The US American Shiffrin is absent from Sölden because of her damaged back. The favorites are Italy’s overall World Cup winner Federica Brignone and the Slovak Petra Vlhova.
The German men start the season more promisingly on Sunday with Stefan Luitz, Alexander Schmid and young driver Fabian Gratz. After all, Luitz has already won a giant slalom. However, Sölden has not been his field so far, he has never been better than 18th place here. But this winter, the man from Allgäu promises, there will be a new old Stefan Luitz. He wanted to be “a bit of the bastard again.” Like before, when he cheekily carved through the gates. Often so cheeky that it did not go off without a mishap, but sometimes also successful. Then came a few difficult years with injuries, a World Cup victory that was initially disallowed, then fought back at the green table, and ultimately the promotion to the role of leader in the technical team after Felix Neureuther’s resignation. Then he “took a step back”. Now he wants to start overtaking again. Maybe not all competitors right away, Henrik Kristoffersen, last year’s best in giant slalom, or Alexis Pinturault, will have something against it. But it would be good if he succeeded in what he plans to do.