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Part of the setup for the FIS Snowboard and Freeski World Championships. Photo by Jeremy Swanson
Adventure

How Aspen Helped Save One of Skiing and Snowboarding’s Biggest Events

COVID-19 restrictions threatened to prevent the FIS Snowboard and Freeski World Championships from taking place. At the last minute, Aspen Snowmass Ski Resort stepped in to keep it from being canceled.

In skiing and snowboarding, the World Championships are basically a mini-Olympics. Taking place once every two years, hundreds of the world’s top athletes descend on one area to compete for medals over a couple of weeks and the host venue typically spends a number of years preparing for it.

Much of that is being tossed to the wind, however, for the 2021 FIS Snowboard and Freeski World Championships. The event was originally scheduled to start March 10 in Zhangjiakou, China, outside of Beijing, at the same venue that will host the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics. But COVID-19 travel restrictions made it impossible for athletes coming from across the globe to all get there. The event was then set to take place in Calgary, Alberta, but that plan was also scrapped in late January after there was still some uncertainty about what the local health department would allow. 

So, at the 11th hour, with only a few weeks to prepare, Aspen decided to help. Buttermilk, which is part of Aspen Snowmass Ski Resort, will host the 2021 World Championships, including ski and snowboard halfpipe, slopestyle, and big air competitions from March 10–16. About 300 athletes from 37 countries will compete and many of them will stick around for the U.S. Grand Prix, which is also rescheduled for March 18–21 at Buttermilk and serves as the first qualifying event for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

“Once we received a commitment from Aspen, we brought the idea to FIS and things started moving at a rapid pace,” says Eric Webster, U.S. Ski & Snowboard senior director of events. “Finding solutions is really what this season has been about.”

Although event organizers in Aspen describe the last-minute preparation as “a frenzy,” they say the pandemic and its restrictions have eliminated a lot of the moving parts.

When you look at the big packet that usually goes into events like this—sponsor activation, negotiating categories, VIP, spectators, meals, media and everything else—you have to throw 90 percent of that out the window,” said Deric Gunshor, event development director at Aspen Skiing Company. “The pandemic really simplifies a lot of things.”

That’s not to say it’s going to be easy. Gunshor and his staff are working around the clock to get it done. This January, Aspen/Buttermilk hosted a stripped down version of the 2021 Winter X Games with no spectators, big screen, or media. While some of the infrastructure from those events will be repurposed for the World Championships and Grand Prix, it’s not a simple matter of recycling.

“It’s not a rinse and repeat sort of thing,” Gunshor says. “Obviously, there are X Games ties because the sports are the same and the courses are the same, but X Games is a small field of invite-only athletes. This is a much larger field. You have to reset operations and break down the courses. Organizing lodging has been a pretty big project, the health and safety protocols are a huge project. You have to rethink how you provide water at the venues, how you schedule competitive heats and feeding people becomes complicated when you don’t want them to sit inside and eat anywhere.”

Other daunting tasks include preparing a television broadcast framework for numerous global live feeds and relocating the massive big air jump used in the X Games—a week-long project in itself. Everyone on-site will be subject to COVID-19 testing every 72 hours and the limited staff will wear many hats, meaning that Gunshor might end up driving athletes up and down the course on a snowmobile himself, as he did for the X Games.

“The athletes were so genuinely appreciative for everything everyone was doing. You don’t have the same euphoria of the big crowd energy moment, but the time connecting with the athletes was really cool,” Gunshor says. “Just the opportunity to say we hosted a World Champs and put it together in five weeks is pretty cool. This piece of the Olympic story will be something we’ll be proud of next winter and beyond.”

Buttermilk will operate as usual during the World Championships and Grand Prix, but no spectators will be allowed to attend the events. Olympic gold medalists Chloe Kim and Jaime Anderson are scheduled to compete, as well as several Colorado athletes, including Olympic gold medalist Red Gerard from Silverthorne, two-time X Games gold medalist, Olympic silver medalist, and Aspen hometown hero Alex Ferreira, two-time defending World Champion Aaron Blunck from Crested Butte, three-time World Championship medalist Chris Corning from Silverthorne, and two-time X Games medalist Taylor Gold from Steamboat Springs.

Watch it: The FIS Snowboard and Freeski World Championships will be broadcast on the Olympic Channel and NBC Sports. Check the online schedule for more info.

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