Lauberhorn, longest World Cup downhill, canceled due to COVID-19 fears

FILE PHOTO: Skiing - Ski World Cup Wengen - Men's Alpine Combined - Downhill - Lauberhorn, Wengen, Switzerland - January 19, 2019 Wiley Maple of the U.S. in action during the first run REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

ZURICH (Reuters) - The Lauberhorn, the longest FIS World Cup downhill ski race, has been canceled after Swiss authorities raised fears that staging events in and around the alpine town of Wengen on Jan. 15-17 would risk spreading COVID-19.

In addition to the 4.3 km (2.7 mile) men's downhill race planned for Saturday, another downhill race and slalom event were also called off after testing in Wengen showed alarmingly high rates of asymptomatic coronavirus infections, authorities said.

The canton of Bern made the final decision not to allow the races after 60 infections were reported in the Wengen community from mid-December. Previously there were virtually no reported positive tests.

"The aim was to prevent the virus from circulating in an uncontrolled way during the Lauberhorn races and thus endangering the participating athletes and officials as well as the local population and thus the further winter ski season in Wengen," race organisers said in a statement.

"Due to the testing of asymptomatic persons, the case numbers in Wengen are somewhat higher than in comparable localities."

Traditionally, crowds of about 35,000 people attend the downhill event, which is also televised internationally and which Switzerland uses to highlight breathtaking vistas that include the Eiger, Moench and Jungfrau mountains that rise to more than 4,100 metres.

Bern officials said that mobile test teams were being sent to Wengen to boost the number of people screened for the coronavirus. They asked residents to remain at home, even though surrounding ski areas, like most resorts across Switzerland, remain open.

"Yes, we are open," reads the front page on the Wengen tourist website advertising that the Kleine Scheidegg and the Maennlichen ski areas, atop of which the Lauberhorn downhill race starts, welcome visitors.

Switzerland has allowed its ski resorts to remain open, in contrast to neighbouring Italy, France, Austria and Germany, as part of a strategy of "lockdown light" that seeks to balance health considerations with efforts to protect its economy.

(Reporting by John Miller)

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