World Cup skiing prepares for a season like no other
Participants will be placed in one of four bubbles
The usual jitters before alpine skiing's World Cup season opener won't be limited to the racers this weekend.
Organizers, sponsors and fans will be just as anxious about the 2020-21 campaign, which starts amid rising numbers of coronavirus cases across Europe.
Even before its traditional start in Soelden, Austria, on Saturday, the season is surrounded by many questions — and they are not just about who will win the races.
The American and Canadian swing in November and December was cancelled and partly replaced by events in Europe, and the men's and women's circuits have been kept apart as much as possible.
WATCH | Canada's ski team begins unprecedented season:
But can all 38 men's and 34 women's races on the current calendar take place as scheduled?
What about the Feb. 8-21 world championships in Cortina d'Ampezzo? Or the Feb. 24-28 Olympic test event in Yanqing, China?
There are questions about travel restrictions, testing, and how racers will perform after their mostly hampered off-season preparations.
At least the start in Soelden has a familiar touch because the competition program of the traditional kick-off event has not changed, with a women's giant slalom Saturday and a men's race Sunday.
In previous seasons, around 15,000 fans per race would travel up to the Rettenbach glacier, but this weekend no visitors, apart from 200 invited guests, are allowed on the hill when Federica Brignone and Aleksander Aamodt Kilde start the defence of their overall World Cup titles.
WATCH | Manny Osborne-Paradis' storied skiing career:
The event was brought forward by one week to avoid tourist crowds and shield World Cup teams and officials from the outside world.
Virus testing will take place upon arrival in Soelden before participants are allocated to one of the four "bubbles" separating teams and officials from workers, media and invited guests.
A similar protocol will be applied to the next races in Lech/Zuers in Austria on Nov. 13-14, and in the remote resort of Levi in Finland the following week.
After its rather quiet start, however, the World Cup in December is scheduled to travel to crowded winter sport hot spots like Sankt Moritz in Switzerland and Val d'Isere in France.
The Swiss Ski Federation on Friday announced fans will be banned from all its races in the entire winter.
While the International Ski Federation has set guidelines concerning virus risk management, local organizers also have their own rules.
A racer who has tested positive won't be able to compete, but there is no general rule, for instance, that after two positive tests an entire team will be withdrawn from a race.
"The Expert for Testing and Hygiene is responsible to review the situation and will suggest further action," one of the FIS guidelines reads.
WATCH | How winter sports are adapting for 2020 season:
Also, at least seven out of the top-10 ranked nations must be able to travel to a venue, otherwise no World Cup points can be awarded at that race.
However, according to FIS, a race will not be automatically cancelled if too many teams cannot reach a venue, and FIS in co-operation with local organizers and health authorities "will be in close touch and monitor the development of the situation."
The staging of races is crucial to the World Cup and its participants from a competitive perspective, as qualification events are needed for the season's marquee event — the worlds in Italy.
It's also important from a financial perspective. The loss of ticket revenue means greater reliance on income from TV broadcast rights and sponsorships to help the sport survive an unusual winter.
The women's World Cup season starts Saturday without a string of familiar names, including Mikaela Shiffrin, Viktoria Rebensburg, Tina Weirather and Anna Veith.
But while the latter three have all retired, Shiffrin is out with a back injury. The American three-time overall champion stayed in Soelden for training earlier this week.
"My goals are staying the same, I don't know what else I could shoot for," Shiffrin said about her season. "I still try to be as fast as I can and it's not really different from any other year. I want to win the races, but I have to focus on my skiing to do that."
Brignone, who dethroned Shiffrin last season to become the first women's overall champion from Italy, won Soelden five years ago. Other pre-race favourites are Petra Vlhova, Marta Bassino and last year's surprise winner, 18-year-old Alice Robinson from New Zealand.
Kilde looking to repeat
Following the retirement of record eight-time champion Marcel Hirscher, Kilde came out on top as World Cup champion last season.
The Norwegian scooped up the title despite winning just one race. He was ahead of Alexis Pinturault by 54 points when the remainder of the season was called off in early March.
"Trying to win more races, that is this year's biggest goal, and hopefully one of them is at the world championships," Kilde said.
On Sunday, Kilde will likely face fierce competition again from Pinturault, who won the season opener last year, and his Norwegian teammate, Henrik Kristoffersen.