Kitzbuehel's 'white circus' welcomes daredevils, but no fans

Kitzbühel (Austria) (AFP) –


Male skiers will bid to safely negotiate the famed Kitzbuehel downhill this week, but the race widely regarded as the most prestigious and demanding on the World Cup circuit will be missing one of its most quintessential aspects - fans.

Last year, a whopping 86,500 spectators packed into the stands surrounding the finish area over three days of action of the 'white circus'.

Flags waving and flares blazing, the supporters lend the spectacle a baying, gladiatorial atmosphere which the daredevil skiers lap up. Thousands more fill the quaint cobbled streets of the Austrian Tyrol town.

But the coronavirus pandemic has put a stop to that.

"Protection of the general public comes first, there is no doubt about it," Hahnenkamm race chief Michael Huber said, confirming the stands and race track will be widely cordoned off.

"We at Kitzbuehel Ski Club are humbled that we can host the Hahnenkamm Races in the first place during this extraordinary period – a time when people are only allowed to leave the house for certain essential reasons."

- No fan zones -

There is no doubt the Hahnenkamm weekend represents an often alcohol-fuelled rite of passage for the thousands of young locals who travel into the resort, knocking back beers and Jagermeister, the 61 degree proof herbal liqueur of choice, on packed early morning trains.

Champagne also flows for the better-heeled audience, including the glitterati of Austrian high society, as the race produces an unashamedly voyeuristic spectacle.

"Dear fans, unfortunately no spectators are allowed to watch the races or training runs this year," organisers said.

"There are no fan zones in town, nor are there any stalls, bars or hotels serving food or beverages. Please follow the 81st Hahnenkamm Races from home on TV."

This year, the famed downhill, which made its debut in 1931, will be run twice, on Friday and Saturday, with a super-G on Sunday.

The scheduling at Kitzbuehel was altered after positive virus cases forced the cancellation of races at Wengen, Switzerland last week.

Kitzbuehel's slalom was then shifted to Flachau last weekend, but there was then a twist as Markus Waldner, the men's World Cup chief race director, tested positive for Covid-19.

Currently self-isolating, he will hand over responsibilities for the Hahnenkamm to his assistants.

- Motorway speeds -

Racers down the Streif pistes on the Hahnenkamm mountain reach motorway-coasting speeds of 140km/h while negotiating sections that have an 85% gradient.

The course falls, snakes and rolls, sending competitors barrelling through a wide variety of terrain, in parts propelling them in the air, only for them to quickly re-align for icy traverses that severely test technical ability and mastery of well-honed equipment.

There have been several gruesome crashes in the white-knuckled downhill over the years. Sliding bodies, flailing skis and helicopter evacuations have become a regular feature and quickly silence the crowd.

But, having drafted in 71 specially trained Austrian soldiers to help groom the piste, organisers seem more concerned about Covid-19 than broken bones.

"Let's not complain about what cannot be, but instead be grateful for what is allowed to take place," said race chief Huber.

"All in all, it will not be an easy exercise to protect the health of everyone involved. This can only be achieved with discipline and the great experience of all those involved on the mountain to implement the necessary hygiene measures to protect against the virus.

"The most important thing is that our stars, the athletes, as well as their trainers and supervisors get through the Kitzbuehel week well and, above all, healthy."

Last year's downhill winner was home favourite Matthias Mayer, a double Olympic gold medallist.

Mayer currently sits second in the downhill standings behind defending overall World Cup champion Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, but the Norwegian was ruled out for the rest of the season after sustaining a knee ligament injury in training last week.

Kilde's teammate Kjetil Jansrud, world downhill champion and Olympic silver medallist in the discipline at Pyeongchang in 2018, won the 2015 downhill in Kitzbuehel and can always be counted upon to give the Austrian, Italian and Swiss speedsters a run for their money.

Schedule (all times GMT)

Friday: downhill (1030)

Saturday: downhill (1030)

Sunday: super-G (0920)