Italy ready for World Championships, with or without spectators-organiser

FILE PHOTO: Skiing - Alpine Skiing World Cup - Women's Downhill - Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy - January 20, 2018. The Chairman of Benetton Group Alessandro Benetton. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini/File Photo

MILAN (Reuters) - Italy is prepared to hold the 2021 World Ski Championships in Cortina D'Ampezzo even with few or no fans on the ground due to COVID-19, the head of the organising body said on Wednesday, dismissing fears the event may be cancelled due to the pandemic.

Italian businessman and Cortina 2021 Foundation President Alessandro Benetton said organizers were working with maximum flexibility to host the championships under whichever format would be compatible with the health situation in Italy.

"Cortina is absolutely ready to host the sporting event," Benetton, a member of the dynasty behind the Benetton clothing brand, said in a phone interview with Reuters.

"A decision about admitting a large or limited audience or no spectators at all will be taken only just before the event takes place," he said.

With Japanese authorities insisting the Olympic Games will be able to open in July, the Cortina championships will provide an early test for hopes of a return to something approaching normality at global sporting events.

Between Feb. 7 and Feb. 21, more than 600 athletes from around 70 countries are expected to compete for medals in an event that will also function as a trial run for the 2026 Winter Olympics the Dolomites resort will host with the city of Milan.

"The Italian government has provided a financial guarantee against catastrophic events, such as a cancellation... But we are convinced the event will take place," Benetton said.

Italy has reported more than 51,000 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic emerged in February, the second highest toll in Europe, and like other countries in the region has experienced a surge in new infections over recent weeks.

Cortina had to cancel the Alpine Ski World Cup finals in March due to the virus, causing an economic loss estimated at some 15 million euros on the area, but Benetton said successful World Cup ski races in recent weeks boded well for Cortina.

Already struggling after years of economic stagnation, Italy badly needs tourist spending and the World Championships has acted as a catalyst for around 500 million euros in mainly public investment, the Foundation head said.

"One euro invested in the infrastructure could have a return of around 6 euros for the local economy in the years to come," said Benetton, who also headed Benetton's Formula 1 team between 1988-1998, when the squad won a constructor championship.

Benetton said the World Championships will showcase Cortina to some 500 million spectators on TV and the internet, if not on the ground, and called on the country to get behind the event.

"Forza Cortina! Forza Italia!" he said.

Cortina previously hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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