Leaning back relaxed at the lounge at the Åre National Arena, Nalle’s telephone keeps ringing uninterrupted. Something to be organized – an ÖFK match that needs to planned perhaps? Nalle Hansson is not fiddling his thumbs although he has retired from event organization in Åre. No matter whether as a team leader, ski racer, Arena Manager or something else, Nalle has been part of all the World Cup events held in Åre to this day. What’s his greatest World Cup memory in Åre? The unbelievable 29’000 fans who came to see Ingemar Stenmark race on home snow.
– Stenmark in 1977. I was still working with the national team and had the chance to return home and be in charge of the start. It was something incredible to stand up at the start and see the entire lake full of cars. It’s a memory for the lifetime, no doubt.
The first step toward Åre becoming an international ski resort was taken when Åre was granted the right to organize the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships 1954. Those are known as Norwegian Stein Eriksen’s Championships. The then 27-year-old legend became the first ever ski racer to win three gold medals at a single Alpine World Ski Championship. Sara Thomasson, an Åre native, and Stig Sollander from Frösön represented the Swedish team with style, winning their respective bronze medals in the ladies’ slalom and the men’s alpine combined.
The 1954 event was also the Championships of Sigge Bergman and Bengt Henrik Stensson. Stensson, better known than Bibbo Nordenskiöld, had a great relationship with Marc Hodler (President of the International Ski Federation from 1951-1998) and Serge Lang (sport journalist who became known as the founder of the FIS World Cup) which helped support Åre’s bid for the event.
– Without Bibbo we would never had the Championships in Åre so soon. He was the driving force and played a significant role in us winning the right to host the 1954 event. He was before his time, a great visionary, commented Hansson.
The Swedish National Arena in Åre today is a venue with modern flood lighting and snowmaking systems and infrastructure that houses both the Åre 2019 organizing committee and the Swedish Ski Association’s alpine activities. Against that backdrop, it is easy to forget all the efforts that were required to stage competitions before practices developed to what they are today.
– Everything today is super modern compared to what we had in the beginning of the 1980’s when the first snow-making installations were built. I remember managing those myself at night. At that time, it was not common to work overnight whereas nowadays that is expected before high-level competitions.
It is not just snow-making and equipment that have improved over the years. Transporting racers, officials and volunteers, today taken care by a lift with a capacity of up to 3’200 people in an hour, used to be a logistical nightmare. The Olympic lift, replaced by the so-called World Champs 8-seater (VM 8:an) in 2006, was only built in 1984 and the gondola in 1989. Before that, the only lift available was the legendary Åre cable car that went all the way to the start. Everyone had to be transported by bus to the cable car and then by cable car to the start. In some cases, officials were pulled up with scooters along a road that ran parallel to the E14. That was not ideal.
– There was gravel and sparks. You had to forget about your skis and just hold on, that was no fun, explained Hansson.
In 1984, the Gästrappet and downhill slopes were built and the race arena was moved to its current site. There was one special race that sealed the arena’s move. Only a fraction of the racers finished, the rest skied out or fell. Why was that? The new hinge gates.
– It was steep and slick where we raced and the coaches had not adjusted to the hinge gates when they set the course. Most everyone skied out, only a dozen or so actually finished. That’s when the decision to move the race arena was definitely taken.
The first downhill FIS World Cup race was carried out in 1986. Everyone was nervous. The ski legend Bernhard Russi, who was supporting Nalle during the race, had the idea during the event how to make it even more challenging for the racers.
– ”Open it up (for tourists) before the race” he suggested. Are you crazy? I said but still followed his advice and allowed the race course be open for recreational skiing for a couple of hours before the race.
That was a risk worth taking.
– I was nervous about what the racers would say. Everyone came here thinking, ”what’s that supposed to be, there is no downhill racing terrain in Åre” but afterwards we received compliments from the national teams for our work.
From mid-1980’s onwards Åre has hosted FIS World Cup events almost on an annual basis. At the end of the 1990’s, the discussions began about Åre bidding for the World Championships in 2005. This required for Åre to be in the World Cup calendar annually which should not present a problem. Åre had a good reputation and had delivered good events. But then suddenly all the good work was about to go awry as in the fall of 1998, Åre was no longer in the calendar before the season. Arena Manager Nalle Hansson received a call from the FIS to inform him of Åre being removed from the annual calendar.
– That brought me out in a cold sweat. FIS had inspected the course and was of the opinion that we were missing an A-net at Stövelbranten. ”We will come and inspect in three weeks again, otherwise Åre is out from the calendar” they said.
Hansson and his team got to work to dig and someone must have been praying to the weather gods.
– It was October and time for the first snowfall any day. But then we were lucky to have the warmest October and November in memory. I worked like crazy for two weeks and we managed to get everything ready, recalled Nalle Hansson.
In the end an inspection was not even needed. Nalle’s word sufficed for the FIS and nothing stood on the way of another World Championships bid. The second FIS Alpine World Ski Championships were awarded to Åre, not for 2005 but for 2007. They became a huge success, even though the competitions were postponed for the first three days for weather reasons. Sweden won seven medals, of which three gold and bronze went to Anja Pärson, a silver to Maria Pietilä-Holmner, and a surprising Swedish downhill bronze to Patrik Järbyn. In addition, Sweden won silver in the nations’ team event.
Over the years Åre and its racing organization have collected valuable experience. Spring of 2014 saw the election of Åre as the host of its third edition of the FIS World Ski Championships in 2019 and at the time of writing only eight months remain until the world’s ski racing elite shall return to Åre to fight for the medals. For Åre, the World Ski Championships and World Cup events are an important catalyst for the village’s development.
– I am convinced that Åre would not be what it is today without the World Cup competitions. The races are the driver for everything, said Nalle Hansson.