The world’s premier downhillers were eagerly anticipating getting a first taste of Italy’s newest downhill course, Vertigine (which translates to Vertigo), as last season’s World Cup Finals were scheduled for Cortina d’Ampezzo in March.

That never happened as the coronavirus outbreak abruptly caused cancellation of the season-ending races, less than two weeks before the planned March 18 start. Despite the obvious disappointment, the downhill racers and roughly 600 ski racers from 70 countries now have a voracious appetite to charge down Cortina’s steep, sinuous, and sun-drenched slopes at the upcoming FIS Alpine Ski World Championships, Feb. 7-21.

Federica Brignone inspection on Tofane Schuss. Photo: Brian Pinelli

The championships will mark the largest international sporting event to come to the venerable Italian Dolomites resort since the 1956 Winter Olympics. Still, considering the current global health crisis, as COVID-19 cases spike in Italy and across much of Europe, threatening races over the months ahead, uncertainty remains.

Italian entrepreneur, former chairman of the Benetton fashion brand and former ski instructor Alessandro Benetton has served as the president of the Cortina 2021 organizing committee since June 2017. Born in Treviso, Italy, in 1964, he is married to three-time Olympic champion Deborah Compagnoni and led Benetton’s successful Formula One racing team for a decade.

Alexander Wurz (AUT), Alessandro Benetton involved in Formula One racing.

Benetton expresses optimism and confidence. He’s often philosophical and seems to be the right man for the unenviable task of overseeing a safe and successful two-week event.

“Unfortunately, we all know what type of period we are going through, but still as we are under 100 days to go until the event, we are extremely excited,” Benetton says. “We know that we have a big challenge in front of us, but we also know that sometimes Italians are able to do incredible things.

“We are still convinced that we are going to do the first great global sporting event (during the) pandemic, or hopefully post-pandemic.”

Benetton, 56, emphasizes a youth-oriented philosophy and sustainable vision for the championships, a transformation for aging Cortina while also building upon the legacy of the 1956 Winter Games.

Opening Ceremonies in Cortina in 1956. Photo: Italian Olympic Committee

“The 1956 Winter Olympics were a turning point for Cortina,” Benetton says. “Let’s not forget it was the first Olympic Games broadcast worldwide. A great infrastructure was developed and it was really the beginning of great success and reputation for Cortina.”

With the championships now 80 days away, Benetton drives home the need for flexibility accounting for the unpredictable coronavirus situation.

“The name of the game for us today is flexibility – we can imagine what this event will look like and we are still optimistic,” says the Italian leader.

“We are still expecting 1,000 people on the grounds for each ski race, of course everything being managed in safety and in the proper manner.

“At the same time, we know that things can change rapidly as we’re seeing the regulations in the Veneto region. Even if we will not have people on the grounds, let’s not forget that in any case, there will be 500 million people watching us on TV.”

Benetton and Cortina organizers, supported by the Italian Winter Sports Federation (FISI) and Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), asked the International Ski Federation if they could postpone the championships, due to COVID-19 issues and with prospects for better economic outcomes in the future, until March of 2022. The proposal was deliberated by the FIS Council and denied in early July.

Benetton calmly responded: “Ok, no problem, we will be ready for the event.”

Vertigine and Olympia delle Tofane tracks

The Vertigine men’s downhill course kicks off dramatically at an elevation of 2,380 meters and the slope – with its 820-meter vertical drop and maximum gradient of 73 percent – should conjure speeds in the vicinity of 130 kilometers-per-hour. Vertigine snakes down the mountainside and links with the women’s Olympia delle Tofane slope as it approaches the bottom, both courses ending in the renovated Rumerlo Finish area.

Cortina’s new men’s downhill track, Vertigine. Photo: Cortina 2021

The women’s Olympia delle Tofane track – a piste also used for the 1956 Men’s Olympic downhill – featuring the signature Tofane Schuss, is a course that the top female racers attack annually during January World Cup races.

Benetton informs that Cortina is well-prepared, while touting Vertigine and sharing an anecdote about retired Italian downhill racer Kristian Ghedina, who won 13 World Cup races and hails from the Dolomites ski town.

“The slopes are ready and they are very interesting slopes,” Benetton says. “We are talking about the new Vertigine, the name says it all. It gives you a flavor for something very extreme.

Kristian Ghedina (ITA)

“There is going to be a new jump that is going to be called the Ghedina Jump and when we decided to do that, Kristian actually said: ‘I want it be a jump of at least 50 or 60 meters otherwise you’re not going to be authorized to use my name.’” Benetton says. “It’s going to be very spectacular.”

“The new track Vertigine, for me the level is high,” says Ghedina, who won his first World Cup downhill race in Cortina in 1990.

“The area where that the slalom is going to occur is where in 1956, Toni Sailer won the gold, the Col Druscie,” Benetton informs. The famed run has recently undergone considerable improvements.

50 years of the Olympic Games in Cortina d Ampezzo. Picture shows Toni Sailer (AUT) with the Olympic flame. Photo: GEPA pictures / Doris Hoefler

Benetton notes the great tradition and character of Cortina’s renowned slopes, which were prominently featured as James Bond raced from Col Druscie through the forest to Cortina in the 1981 classic film “For Your Eyes Only.”

“The race slopes maintain the personality of Cortina’s slopes – not just plain, straight, steep slopes, but a lot of turns and changing rhythm that is going to make the races very interesting, even from a TV point-of-view,” says the Cortina 2021 boss.

Vision for Cortina’s future and the 2026 Winter Games

The Cortina d’Ampezzo Alpine Ski World Championships will serve as an early dress rehearsal for the 2026 Olympic Winter Games, which the stylish Northern Italian resort will share with the city of Milan.

Defying odds and backed by a team effort from politicians to athletes to sport leaders – and 83% public support – the bid from Milan-Cortina won a 47-34 International Olympic Committee vote over Stockholm and Are, Sweden in June 2019.

Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malago, asked about what the victory means for young skiers and athletes, who will now have more opportunities to compete in historic Cortina, responded: “We respect our history, we respect our tradition, but at the same time, we are projected to the future.”

“This is some sort of preparation for the Olympic Games 2026,” Benetton says of February’s event.

Benetton envisions these world championships and the future Winter Olympics will reinvigorate a younger generation in Cortina and across Italy’s Veneto region.

“I think the real legacy that we’re leaving is the condition of the people and local community that there can be a future for the younger generations,” Benetton says.

Photo: Italian Olympic Committee

“I’m trying to do my part in giving back through this chairmanship of the organizing committee, but also trying to recreate an enthusiasm for the younger generations and young entrepreneurs, that need to believe even if the situation is negative and things look terrible, you must have the courage and see the glass half-full.

“My philosophy is that sometimes in order to know where you want to go, you need to understand where you come from,” Benetton continues. “When I look at this picture and I see all these values together – performance, sport, family, beauty and style – it comes back to me and the title is Cortina.”

Racing through the finish line

So what exactly will it take for Benetton and his team to succeed on their crusade, despite COVID uncertainties, to deliver an inspiring championships in February?

“We are facing a situation that has been unseen before and probably things are going happen before the event in February, so once again flexibility,” Benetton says.

“My approach is that when you’re kind of lost, you need to go back to the original values for the decision you are making.

“Cortina was the first place to vacate to in the 1950’s, Cortina was the first Olympic Games on TV and Cortina was the first ski school in the world,” Benetton proudly informs. “Cortina was first many times, so that is what we want to do – bring Cortina back to where it belongs.”

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