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Winter Olympics Return to Italy in Sprawling Milano-Cortina Event

The flags of the People’s Republic of China and Greece and Italy are displayed during the closing ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games at Beijing National Stadium, Feb 20, 2022.

After two editions in Asia, the Winter Olympics returns to Europe and to Italy in 2026, in a huge event spread over hundreds of kilometers.

The joint bid of Milan and Cortina D'Ampezzo saw off Swedish pair Stockholm and Are in 2019 to bring the Winter Games back to Turin, two decades after they were last held there.

Crucially, it will be the first Winter Olympics to be co-organized by two cities.

It will be no easy task as Milan and Cortina are in two different regions -- Lombardy and Veneto -- and separated by about 400 kilometers (250 miles) or five hours by road.

The distance is such that when skier Sofia Goggia crashed at Cortina on the eve of the Beijing Olympics she had to be flown by helicopter to Milan for tests on her knee injury.

Federica Brignone, a double alpine skiing medal winner at the Beijing Olympics, expressed concern that the large distances involved "won't be great for the Olympic spirit" at what will likely be the last Games for the 31-year-old.

Cortina will be hosting the event for the first time in 70 years and the 2026 Games will be held in a winter sports hub.

Cortina, in the Italian Dolomites, and Bormio -- one of four event “clusters” -- regularly host World Cup alpine skiing.

Organizers have been aiming to make the most of existing sports infrastructure to limit the economic and environmental impact for which the Winter Games are often criticized.

The Beijing Olympics were under scrutiny for the massive use of artificial snow and the building of alpine skiing facilities in an area north of Beijing that suffers from drought.

The Games before that, the 2018 event in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was beset by bone-chilling cold.

The 2026 opening ceremony will be held at Milan's iconic San Siro Stadium, which will be approaching 100 years old by the time the Games begin.

It is due to eventually be demolished as Serie A football clubs AC Milan and Inter Milan plan a new stadium on the same site on the western outskirts of the city.

The two clubs have announced "The Cathedral" designed by the Populous firm, who designed the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.

Italian media report that matches will not be played there until 2027, and on Friday Milan mayor Giuseppe Sala said it will be the current arena, with the distinctive concrete structure that was added in its latest revamp, that hosts the opening ceremony.

"I think that the opening ceremony will be held at the current San Siro because I know how long it takes to build a new stadium and I don't think it will be finished," Sala told reporters at a pre-handover media conference.

Organizers say that the only new sites to be built for 2026 had already been planned independently of the Games -- the Arena PalaItalia ice hockey venue and the Milan Olympic Village, which will then be converted into student housing.

However, there is some tension about some of the infrastructure, in particular the Cortina bobsleigh track.

The Veneto region has committed to refurbishing the historic Eugenio Monti track, which has been abandoned since 2008, at a cost of about $67.9 million.

But the works have been blasted by CIPRA, an international collective of NGOs which aims to protect the Alps, which has pleaded for "alternatives that are less expensive and more respectful of the environment," such as relocating the events to Innsbruck in Austria, two-and-a-half hours from Cortina.