It has been predicted that there's going to be Northern Lights in Levi soon. So take a look skywards! Prediction provided by Sunsää.
The first FIS Ski World Cup race in Levi took place in 2004, and since 2006, Levi has hosted the annual opening races for both men’s and ladies’ slalom seasons. How did the tour find its northernmost location?
Mikko Saarinen, Secretary General of the World Cup Levi, was kind enough to shed light on the Lapland race’s epic story. He has witnessed a big part of it with his own eyes, as he has been on the organizing team since 2006. But the first chapters of the story were written much earlier.
What was said to be delusions of grandeur…
In the mid 90s, Finland and an international alpine race event weren’t discussed in the same sentence. Professional alpine skiing was quite in its infancy in a country that has virtually no mountains.
There are, however, two things worth knowing about Lappish people: they are true winter sport enthusiasts, and every once in a while they get really abnormal ideas. So a thought, megalomaniac some would say, was born that maybe some day the event would become a reality at Levi.
Then, in 1996, FIS Technical Delegate Erik Dahlberg visited Levi. Together with local spokespersons Tapio Kokko and Jouni Palosaari, he went to check out what then was a wooded slope on the southwest side of the Levi Fell. It looked so promising that the idea started to evolve into a true vision of the Levi Black race course. Simultaneously, word about the vision started to spread internationally, as people like Martti Uusitalo, who assembled the ladies’ national alpine skiing team, spoke about it abroad.
In 1999, Finnish alpine skiing icon Kalle Palander won the slalom world championship and Finland entered the pro alpine skiing world. In June of the same year, it was agreed in Levi that Levi Black would be built with a gondola lift and lighting. Construction work proceeded swiftly and, by the Millennium, the gondola was up and running. Only 11 months later, in November 2000, the megalomaniac idea was realized when the men’s slalom and giant slalom European Cup tour arrived at Levi. The event organization went well, the race course worked perfectly.
After the successful event, FIS got more and more interested. In the following months, Levi welcomed many delegates, while prominent Finnish winter sports figures, Mr. Uusitalo and the former Prime Minister Esko Aho, to name a few, were busy answering questions about Levi’s readiness to organize a World Cup race. It is also important to recognize the people that dedicated their time and travel mileage to learn everything about World Cup race arrangements.
People in Levi weren’t resting on their laurels either, but continued building an infrastructure to support racing events. The next event, ladies’ European Cup race, was organized in 2001, the same year when Levi was also nominated as Aspen’s backup for the FIS Ski World Cup calendar.
Rags to riches
Investments in Levi, people’s dedication and successful events all indicated that Levi was a credible candidate for the FIS calendar. The hard work paid off in June 2002 when it was announced that Levi would organize the ladies’ slalom World Cup race in February 2004. Needless to say, things got even busier.
The World Cup required more accommodation space, logistics, racing infrastructures that met with FIS standards, and so on. As characteristic of the organizing team’s attitude, 1000 lux race course lighting that exceeded all requirements was put in place; just to ensure that race broadcasting would succeed with the best possible quality.
“The World Cup project was a big thing in Finland, and a huge one for Lapland. People were willing to help, media was eager to report, and there was a spirit of fellowship around the event – and there still is,” says Mikko Saarinen.
Careful planning, dedication, and people’s true enthusiasm were present in the first World Cup Levi. And when rising Finnish slalom star Tanja Poutiainen won her first World Cup race, there were no limits to the joy.
A rag to riches story was born and “the best (and only) Ski World Cup organizing team in Finland” had shown that one doesn’t always need the Alps to enjoy professional alpine skiing.
Establishing a position
“The World Cup Levi organizing team has never settled with a good performance, but always aims to reach the next step,” Mikko Saarinen states. This was true already after the first World Cup race. When Mikko joined the crew, the World Cup Levi was taking a year off (that’s typical for all new World Cup locations), but the organizing team was anything but on a sabbatical.
Instead, they carefully investigated FIS race calendar, locations, media and partner requirements, and came up with a proposal that established Levi’s position in the World Cup. Namely, there was a gap of 6 weeks between the Cup opening in Sölden in October, and the next races in the US.
This gap hadn’t been easy to fill, as there hadn’t been a location that had real snow in November. It was in everyone’s interest to find such a place, and Levi was it. In March 2006, Levi hosted the ladies’ slalom World Cup, but it was in November 2006 when World Cup Levi found its ultimate place with both the men’s and ladies’ World Cup slalom opening races.
They were a success. There was snow, a top quality race course, and everything from the logistics to other arrangements worked. And has worked ever since, albeit the two years when it didn’t snow in November, not even in Finland.
What makes the Lapland race special?
World Cup Levi is also referred to as the Lapland race. “This is a very important point. World Cup Levi is an event that is shared by all of Lapland, and indeed, all of Finland. Levi acts as the venue, but there’s so much more in the background from investors to volunteers.”
“It is crucial that the Lapps, in particular, feel that this is their thing. It makes World Cup Levi so special. We have our own culture here, which is a bit exotic and very welcoming, and that has been a true selling point. Besides, it wouldn’t be called a World Cup if it wouldn’t include different types of racing venues. Levi is the only place where athletes, at the start gate, see nothing but flat countryside around the fell. It’s a nice change for them.”
Throughout the years, the World Cup Levi organizing team has received a lot of positive feedback, for arrangements in general and for the very fluent logistics, as it takes some 4 hours to fly from Central Europe to Levi, and 15 minutes to transfer from the airport to the centre, where everything from Levi Black to accommodation and restaurants are within walking distance.
Innovative teams and themes
“The World Cup Levi core organizing team has remained small, consisting of 10 people, but they are innovative, dynamic, and efficient,” notes Mikko. “And as said, it’s not just the core team, but also the dedicated work of the whole group of alpine skiing enthusiasts, investors, locals and volunteers. It’s highly appreciated that Finns do what they promise to do, and keep things simple and working,” he says to sum up some of the core advantages of World Cup Levi.
The organizing team also wants to be on the forefront in developing its own race, and the World Cup in general. In 2007, investments were made to further improve Levi Black. Every year there’s a new theme for the event, such as families or supplementary events. Levi was also the first location in FIS history to offer a mobile application for the event.
World Cup Levi’s significance to Lapland’s business is, of course, considerable. As an indication of this, it received “Lapland’s regional developer of the year” award in 2012. Overall, World Cup Levi is a perfect example of determination and the famous Finnish sisu, loosely translated as “when there is a will, there is a way”. It will certainly be interesting to see which delusions of grandeur the organizing team and Lappish people will carry out next!
Said about the lapland race
"We wouldn’t be here without our own alpine stars. You cannot organize a World Cup race if you don’t have any locals at the start gate." - Mikko Saarela
"There are some 1,700 ski resorts in the world, and 20 of them organize the FIS Ski World Cup. We’re in quite a magnificent group." - Mikko Saarela
When Tanja Poutiainen announced an end to her successful racing career in spring 2014, it was clear that this Finnish alpine skiing heroine would be no couch potato. I was keen to hear more about her plans for the future and thoughts on the past. We ended up talking about football.