Spain mourns Blanca Fernández Ochoa, the Olympian skier found dead in Madrid’s sierra

The body of former Spanish alpine skimedallist Blanca Fernández Ochoa was found Wednesday in a mountainous area near Madrid after days of searches for her by hundreds of police and volunteers, officials said.

Spain mourns Blanca Fernández Ochoa, the Olympian skier found dead in Madrid's sierra
Archive photo of Blanca Fernández Ochoa during her Olympic career.

The 56-year-old — won a bronze skiing for Spain in the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, becoming the country's first female Winter Olympic medallist — had been missing since she was last spotted on surveillance video at a shopping centre on August 24th.

Her car was later found at a parking lot near the start of a hiking trail in Cercedilla, a mountainous village near Madrid. The authorities said they are still investigating the cause of her death.

“Solidarity, support and human warmth have been felt these days in the mountains of Cercedilla. Security forces and many volunteers have taken part in the search for Blanca Fernández Ochoa. But nothing could be done. My affection to all her family,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted.

Hundreds of police, firefighters, forest rangers and volunteers, backed by helicopters, drones and tracking dogs, had taken part in the search for Fernández Ochoa.

Her family only alerted the authorities about her disappearance on August 29th because they said it was not unusual for her to go on hikes in the area, even without her phone, according to Spanish media reports.

Police on Saturday issued an appeal on social media for help from the public in locating Fernández Ochoa along with a picture of her, which drew media attention to her disappearance.

She was well known in Spain, where she had taken part in several TV reality shows after retiring from sports.

Her older brother, Francisco Fernández Ochoa, won a gold medal for skiing in the 1972 Winter Olympics in Japan. He is the first and only Spaniard to have won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.   

There is a statue in his honour in Cercedilla.   

Until 2018 the brother and sister were the only Spaniards to have won medals at a Winter Olympics.

“It is a very sad day for Spanish sports,” Spain's secretary of state for sports, Maria Jose Rienda, said in a statement.

READ ALSO: Snowboarder from Ceuta wins Olympic medal for Spain

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UPDATE: What we know about plans to open Spain’s ski resorts

With Spain preparing for its first proper snowfall this weekend, winter sport lovers are asking when ski resorts across the country will be opening.

UPDATE: What we know about plans to open Spain’s ski resorts
The town of Formigal as seen from the slopes.Photo: Formigal Aramon Resort

The winter skiing season has become a source of tension among European countries, with several countries refusing to open resorts fearing it could spark a new bout of coronavirus outbreaks.

Even as its northern neighbour France banned its ski resorts from opening and threatened border checks to stop people from crossing the  border to ski, Spain has not completely ruled out opening its ski resorts.

Infact, Spain’s Tourism Minister has insisted Spain is determined to open its ski resorts this season.

Reyes Maroto, said in an interview with RNE that the “government is in favour of these activities opening in a safe way”.

Spain's Association of Ski Resorts (ATUDEM) presented plans last week for the winter season insisting that ski tourism lends itself well to coronavirus restrictions at least in terms of social distancing.

They point out the obvious facts; that the sport is carried out in the open air meeting the “well ventilated” criteria that is supposed to limit the risk of contagion. Plus, the length of skies when worn naturally keeps skiers apart the 1.5 metres social distancing recommended by health authorities.

The report on how to keep resorts safe recognised potential hotspots at ski equipment hire shops, restaurants and on the lifts but suggested that the risks could be easily mitigated.

They outlined plans that include extra cleaning at installations and adding hand sanitizer dispensers, a ban on smoking in busy places in resorts and limiting numbers in restaurants to ensure social distancing.

However restrictions on travel that have been announced over the Christmas period means it could be difficult for those who don’t live near a resort to get to the slopes, if they want to abide by the rules.

In Catalonia, which boasts several areas of ski resorts in the Pyrenees bordering France and Andorra, plans are still afoot to open the pistes after the December puente.

The Catalan resorts of Masella, Boí Taüll, La Molina, Port Ainé, Vallter 2000, Espot Esquí and Tavascán had all announced that they were opening on December 9th.

But on Thursday, a spokeswoman from FGC, a public company that operates resorts in Catalonia said their opening would have to be delayed until restrictions that prevent people from leaving their municipality at weekend were lifted.

Meanwhile the upmarket and privately run resort of Baqueira Beret, a favourite with Spain’s royal family, was due to open on December 11th and has not announced plans to delay its inaugural weekend.

On Thursday Catalan authorities delayed lifting restrictions on movement between municipalities at weekends and loosening limits on restaurants – measures that will now stay in place until December 21just two days before the national ban on travel within Spain kicks in for Christmas.

It would mean that should the resorts open then only those who live within the region itself will be able to visit ski resorts.

Further west in the Pyrenees within the Aragon region, Aramon, the company that runs resorts in Formigal, Panticosa, Cerler and Valdeinares and Javalambre in Teruel have placed staff on ERTE – Spain's furlough scheme – delaying the opening of their resorts until the situation is clearer.

Candachu and Astun, also in the Pyrenees haven't set a date for opening yet and have also placed staff on ERTE.

In the Sierra Nevada, the season usually opens by the last weekend in November and experienced a good dump of snow over the last weeks but the opening of resorts there have been delayed until border restrictions around Andalusia are lifted – they are currently due to remain in place over the December Puente and not open until December 10th.

But with the new restrictions announced over the Christmas and New Year period, a usually busy time for Spanish ski resorts, it is unclear whether they will be able to open at all.

New rules announced on Wednesday prohibit travel across regional borders between December 23rd and December 6th unless it is for reasons that include, work, study, seeking medical treatment etc.

The one concession made to the rules is to allow people to travel to a different autonomous region within Spain to visit “family or close friends” although the advice is to avoid unnecessary travel and to stay at home.

The rules currently make no exception for skiing.

For the latest on resorts opening and snow levels check out Infonieve.