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The first World Cup competition in Estonia and Otepää: 1999

Thu, Jan  14, 2010 - By Bengt Erik Bengtsson, FIS

The World Cup resumes in Otepää, Estonia, this weekend. How did it Estonia ever get a World Cup race, anyways? Here's the history....

It started already in 1980 in Murmansk when I was team captain for a Swedish team. At Murmansk there was also a team from Estonia, which at this time was a member state of the Soviet Union. As I speak some Finnish they taught me how to deal with Russians if you wanted to do small business like changing caps etc, a very popular thing to do.

As a group, the Estonians were together all the time wearing pullovers from Ski World Championships in Lahti 1978.

The best ones in the group were Arne Sirel and Uno Leist. And I remember that Russian spectators were pushing their best athlete in the last uphill so that he could win the race and be merited as a Sportsman of the first international class in the marathon race.

I also remember that I had a talk with the Russian minister of sport, Mr. Akimov, and I wanted one from the Estonian group to help me as an interpreter. No one could speak Russian was the answer.

I later asked them "why did you not help me?" The answer was "Hän on Eestin vasta = He is against Estonia ".

Later on when the iron curtain fell and the Estonians were allowed to start as a nation of its own at the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville 1992, we had two good Nordic Combined athletes; Allar Levandi and Ago Markwardt. I still remember the journalists, Lempiko Kuuse and Tuomas Uba and their sadness as Allar Levandi was number 6 just a few seconds behind the medal ranks.

The next time I had contact with Estonia was at the World Ski Championships in Falun 1993 where I was invited to a party by President Arnold Green. I remember the young (16 years old) Kristina Smigun dancing with Elmo Kassin and the General Secretary, Karel Zilmer, said "She will be a star but she will come step by step".

Now to the story:

At the end of August 1998 I got a letter from Anatolij V. Akentjev , the president of the Russian Cross-Country Committee and member of the FIS Council, with the main content: "I am sorry but due to economical difficulties we cannot organize the WC competition in Raubichi 05.01 1999".

I then got an idea and contacted Karel Zilmer in Estonia. I called him up and told him about the problem and that it would be a sensation if the small and poor Estonia could take over a World Cup competition from the big and wealthy Russia.

"It will be difficult," Mr. Zilmer said, "but send me an official paper from FIS that I can use at our negotiations at home." I wrote CONFIDENTIAL on the paper and sent it.

September 10th, Karel Zilmer phoned and said we will try but please bring along a homologation expert and come soon.!!! The place will be Otepää with the main training center called Pentagon built by the Russians who used it for training purposes. It was used especially before the Championships.

On September 21st, I was there together with PO Boström from Sweden and my personal assistant, Solveig. We stayed for three days and made not only the tracks but also educated the main officials concerning the duties of a World Cup organizer. Everything went smoothly and I remember persons like Tiit Pekk and Allar Aukrust being involved.

The preparations went on and the Estonian government took also part - but suddenly warm weather in combination with strong winds lead to the snow melting away. From Kristina Smigun who lived in the village,we got alarming reports concerning the Christmas sprints resorts . Because of the warm weather, there were even ducks swimming around in the pond close to the stadium.

Estonia is a small country but the whole nation really wanted to carry out the competitions. Along with the soldiers who were required to come, volunteers came from all over Estonia to Otepää.Some of the people did not even get a shovel but used their bare hands to transport the snow.

Saturday, January 2nd, we came more or less directly from the sprint competitions in Kitzbuehl (AUT). It was -4 degrees C in Otepää. We could all see the immense work that had been done.

Normally the opening ceremonies are organized for quite small groups but here in Otepää the night before the race you got a feeling that whole Estonia was present and the ovations had no limits when the Estonian team entered the arena.

During the night it snowed but it was quite dangerous as the ground was very icy.

The races took place on a high altitude and again the ovations had no limits when Kristina Smigun reached her first ever podium finish. However it is to be mentioned here that her mother Rut and father Anatolij both were World Junior champions during the Soviet era. The winners now were Espen Bjervig and Bente Martinsen, both NOR.

The TV production was excellent and our coordinator for the athletes, the Olympic Champion Vegard Ulvang reported to the FIS Cross-Country Committee that all athletes wanted to go back to Otepää every year and so it has been the case ever since.

Thank you Otepää and Estonia and good luck in the upcoming Olympic Winter Games!

Yours, Bengt Erik Bengtsson