Alpine skiing: Quiet Schladming readies for ski madness

Nestled in the heart of Austria at the foot of the majestic Dachstein peaks, Schladming, which hosts the World Ski Championships between February 4-17, is no stranger to big sports events.

In 1982, it welcomed the world championships and every year since 1997 it has played host to the popular "Night Race" World Cup slalom -- with some 45,000 spectators converging on the small town of 4,500 for one day's ski racing.

Part of the Schladming-Dachstein ski region with 232 kilometres (144 miles) of slopes and close to 100 lifts, this quiet little resort stands at just 745 metres (2,444 feet) altitude but with easy access to the surrounding 2,000-metre summits.

This has made it a firm favourite with ski enthusiasts and families seeking a winter holiday destination, away from the glitzier resorts of the Austrian Tyrol like Kitzbuehel, Ischgl or St Anton.

The region has also contributed a fair share of star athletes in this ski-crazed nation, with big names like Hermann Maier, Marcel Hirscher, Hans Knauss and Klaus Kroell all hailing from within a 20km radius of Schladming.

At the end of last season, the resort was tasked with organising the week-long World Cup finals and this proved a timely dress rehearsal for the world championships.

Promising a "ski fest with heart", Schladming has gone all out to ensure sports buffs are hindered as little as possible during the two weeks of competition, which coincide with ski holidays in much of Austria.

All the races will take place on the Planai mountain ending in a joint finish area in town.

The ski area will otherwise remain almost entirely open to the public, with just a handful of slopes closed for races and training.

Some 400,000 spectators, 3,000 media and 650 athletes are expected over the next 14 days of competition.

As a result, Schladming went on a spending spree to spruce up its image.

Two large new hotels have been built to accommodate guests, the train station was revamped to facilitate the transit of thousands of passengers, a large plaza has been cleared for the medal ceremonies and a massive open-air arena for 24,000 spectators has been erected around the finish area.

Extensive infrastructure upgrades were also carried out, with media reports estimating the total cost of construction work at 400 million euros ($546 million).

Before the start of competition, Schladming already scored another coup: in 2017, it will host the Special Olympics Winter Games for the second time after 1993, jointly with Graz.

One group, in any case, is certainly rejoicing about the upcoming ski fest: as organisers needed the school premises, local children have been given two weeks off. And will be able to attend weekday races for free.