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Anna Wästersved has been team manager at SMK Gävle Ice Speedway for 11 years. The 58-year-old knows the Swedish Ice Speedway scene like the back of her hand and a number of the sport’s international stars have also been part of her team – Markus Jell (GER), Johann Weber (GER) and Lukas Hulta (CZE) were all on Gävle’s roster for 2020 and are in the starting line-up for this weekend’s FIM Ice Speedway Gladiators World Championship in Togliatti.

It is -8 degrees in Gävle and would be the perfect weather for ice speedway, but before we can get to the positive, Wästersved is unhappy that Corona restrictions have heavily affected the sport this year.

“I don’t know what to say, I understand why, but it is very disappointing to not be able to race a whole World Championship series,” she laments. “But I understand how the organisers are thinking – with no crowds, that means no money and that means no sponsors… And then there is the restrictions. We’ve not been able to race here at all,” says the experienced Swede.

Fans, riders and managers alike, no one likes the current situation – even if it is understandable.

But soon the conversation takes a more positive note as we look ahead to who might win this weekend.

“Of course, it will be one of the Russians for sure. But it hard to say which one of Dinar Valeev, Dmitry Khomitsevich, Daniil Ivanov or Igor Kononov will win. I think Ivanov [current world champion] didn’t seem very motivated at the beginning of the season, but seems to be more himself now. For him, and Kononov, it’s their home venue, but maybe the other two will surprise everyone,” she muses.

It is now 29 years since a non-Russian has won the competition and it is 12 years since any European has medalled at all. That was Austrian, Franky Zorn, who took bronze back in 2009. Even though he was 50 years old last summer, he will again be representing his country in 2021.

Zorn came 10th in last year’s curtailed series, but the top scoring European was his compatriot, Harald Simon.

But Wästersved is worried that the Europeans are going to be on the back foot this year as travel restrictions have meant the many have not been able to train at all since last year – apart from appearing at the European Championship in Poland in December.

“Simon is really good but has not been on the ice at all,” she says, “but I know Zorn, Jasper Iwema (NED) and Luca Bauer (GER/ ITA) have been here in Sweden. Hulta has not done much either, and you could see that at the European Championship as he crashed a lot,” she adds sympathetically.

Apart from Simon, the only European to appear in a final last year was German, Johann Weber. Not only that, but he finished fourth at Togliatti, this weekend’s venue.

But any hope of a repeat was dashed, as Wästersved reveals, the German has been unable to travel to Russia because his bus broke down, “No, he’s home in Germany and his place has been taken by the Czech rider, Andrej Divis. But he has not raced much either,” she says pessimistically.

The Russians would have been favourites even without these problems. And the Swedish riders, Niklas and Stefan Svensson (the latter replacing the injured Martin Haarahiltunen) have had to pull out completely because they were denied travel visas due to the country’s strict COVID-19 restrictions.

But this year the difference between the Russians and the rest of the world will be clear as by comparison with the Europeans, “they have had the National Championships, the Super League and the Russian Cup, so they have all raced a lot”.

Despite almost being guaranteed a clear sweep of the medals (again!) no Russian flags will be on display during the competition, in accordance with FIM’s agreement with WADA. The anti-doping agency has banned all its’ member organisations having events in Russia for two years. But the Ice Gladiators were given clemency because of the “extraordinary” situation we find ourselves in this year.

Corona may have changed many things but one thing seems certain, the Ice Speedway Gladiator for 2021 will be lifting a trophy with white, blue and red ribbons on it – even if they cannot wear their country’s flag during the races.