Asia Aims To Become The Next Hotbed For Ski Racing
Spanning 17.21 million square miles, Asia is nearly two times larger than North America and more than four times the size of Europe. All lands from Saudi Arabia to Japan are considered part of this extensive landmass, and the bulk of the world’s population – more than 4 billion people – reside in an Asian country. It’s little surprise that these nations present an opportunity for growing snow sports participants and fans. But will hosting the next two Olympic Winter Games in the Asian countries of South Korea and China help create an expandable base to ensure the future of our sport?
The PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games are less than six months away. There have already been two successful World Cup alpine skiing test events held at the speed venue over the last two years, and the Korean Ski Association is bulking up its national team in preparation for competing at the Games.
In South Korea, there are currently 71 athletes who hold active FIS licenses. On the men’s side, the country's top skier is Dong-hyun Jung, who scored World Cup slalom points twice in the 2016-17 season. His best performance was 14th place in Zagreb at the start of the new year. Surprisingly, Jung skipped competing in the 2017 World Championships in order to prepare for the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan. No South Korean athletes represented the nation in last winter's World Championships.
“He wanted to go to the [World Championships], but his sponsor wanted him to compete in Sapporo,” Korean Ski Associate Director for International Relations Ryu Je-hoon told DerStandard.at in February.
Jung won the slalom in Sapporo by just over two seconds, beating out his teammate Hyeon-tae Kim who finished in second. The fields at the Asian Winter Games were filled with athletes from China, India, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Mongolia, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. The margin between the men’s slalom winner and the 10th-place finisher, Hossein Saveh Shemshaki of Iran, was 10.07 seconds. For comparison, the margin between World Champion Marcel Hirscher of Austrian and 10th-place finisher Stefan Hadalin of Slovenia at the World Championships was 1.41 seconds, demonstrating significantly tighter ability levels at the pinnacle of the sport.
When it comes to speed, there has been virtually no one competing from Asian countries at top-level events in recent years. That’s where Randy Pelkey comes into play. Pelkey, a former U.S. development team coach, was approached by the Korean Ski Association to lead its speed team heading into the Games.
"I've been hired to be the speed coach, and they've never really had a speed program before,” Pelkey says. “They are really good at technical skiing, and they've always had a pretty good slalom program. They just haven't put a big emphasis on speed, so they needed someone with that kind of experience, and that was kind of my skill set to introduce basics and do some safe fundamental training that built them into a team that could not only survive the Olympic course, but to provide a good showing at the Olympics.”
The Korean speed team consists of one woman and four men. The lone female, Seo-hyun Kim, started racing downhill just this season. She competed in FIS races in the U.S. and has chipped away at her points, which are currently 122.93 in downhill and 103 in super-G. In order to qualify for the speed events at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games on home snow, she will have to shave them down to 80. With the goal of qualifying the whole team, Pelkey plans for more competitions in North America this winter.
"The level that the speed team is at right now, it's difficult to go to Europe,” he continues. “Far East events are few and far between for any kind of speed. So, our best opportunity and our goal is to qualify four people for downhill, super-G and alpine combined for the Olympics, and in order to do that, we need to not only go do some FIS races in Canada and the U.S. like some NorAms, but we need to get the proper training to do that."
Some of that training will take place at Jeongseon, the Olympic speed venue, so they can make the most of their home hill advantage, but they will also need to prepare overseas.
“My whole approach in the two-year plan to do this is: Number one, to get them safe, competent in terrain, so that when they're faced with any kind of jumping or terrain situation, at least they have the skill set to be able to handle that,” Pelkey explains. “And number two, get familiar with the home venue, and number three is to make sure our points qualify us for the Olympics, and do this all in a safe way.”
The team’s on snow preparations for the 2017-18 season have already begun with camps in California.
“We were in Mammoth for a couple of weeks in May,” he continues. “The tech team has been in Europe. They're heading to New Zealand, and we, the speed team, are heading for five weeks to South America. And after that, we'll be in Copper for most of November. We have a cooperation agreement with the U.S. team. They've been training with us on the Olympic venue, and we tend to take opportunities with them when it makes sense for the both of us.”
While Pelkey often travels in familiar territories with his new team, there are cultural differences between his athletes and him. First off, he doesn’t speak Korean, so the team speaks English on the hill. He also found that they are very willing to sacrifice for the team.
“As a ski team, if you're not a team, you're going to have a rough go,” the speed coach shares. “I just found that they do it as well as anybody – even to the point where they'll sacrifice themselves for the team, which I haven't seen before.”
Sacrifices might include skipping a race if the whole team doesn’t have the opportunity to compete. Of course, when it comes to the Olympic Games, surely anyone who qualifies will race with or without the entire team. With about 150 days left until the Olympic Games, South Korean athletes are training hard to make a strong showing in February in front of a home crowd.
While South Korea is putting on the finishing touches for the Games this coming winter, China is just ramping up its preparations and engaging fans for four years down the road. China has a strong freestyle skiing presence with athletes Mengtao Xu and Guangpu Qi topping last season’s ladies’ and men's rankings in aerials skiing. However, its alpine skiing presence on the international stage is minimal. The country, which has over one billion citizens, has fewer than 100 active FIS alpine skiers. That’s 0.000001 percent of the population actively competing in FIS racing. If there was ever a growth market, this is it.
In June 2017, FIS and Alisports signed a cooperation agreement to activate 30 million Chinese snow sport participants through the “Get Into Snow Sports” campaign. The goal is to raise the number of winter sport participants by the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games across China from the current 15 million to 300 million. While in Beijing, FIS Secretary General Sarah Lewis praised the agreement.
“We are delighted to be able to develop this relationship with such a respected partner, Alisports,” she says in a press release. “Over the past 15 years we have seen the organic growth and popularity of snow sports in China with many innovative events such as the FIS Big Air and Aerials World Cup events hosted in the Birds Nest. This grassroots ‘Get into SnowSports’ development program builds on the work FIS has achieved through our ‘Bring Children to the Snow’ campaign and the annual ‘World Snow Day’ and the Chinese Ski Association’s engagement in these initiatives is a key driver in taking this important step to create ‘Get into Snow Sports - China.’’
The “Get into SnowSports” program will focus on standardized scientific training to turn one-and-done consumers into consistent sports participants. Essentially, the idea is to turn the one-time skier into a lifelong athlete and fan.
“Alisports is extremely honored to form this partnership with International Ski Federation (FIS), and is grateful for the tremendous support from the Chinese Ski Association who has aided us in this collaboration to implement the ‘Get into SnowSports’ program,” adds Alisports founder and CEO, Zhang Dazhong. “Chinese skiing has seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of consumers and with the effort to turn one million consumers into 300 million winter sports enthusiasts, sports training will be an integral part in making this dream a reality.”
The partnership is part of FIS’ larger global development plan, which is headed up by Josef Zenhausern, the FIS Development Program consultant who formerly ran the Swiss Ski Federation. The primary goal of the program is to grow alpine skiing at a grassroots level, getting as many people on snow as possible.
“There the problem is that the Chinese, they start to build a house with the roof, and we try to tell them that they should like, in other countries, start with the youths, start with all these other people,” Zenhausern shares. “The Chinese, they are actually already strong in freestyle, snowboard, boarder cross. They have some people in cross-country, but in alpine skiing, they really have to work.”
The long-time ski professional is not certain how many athletes will make it to the elite level in such a short amount of time, but FIS is committed to tapping into the market.
“We do not give money,” Zenhausern explains of the support that FIS provides to developing countries. “We have one million in the Aid and Promotion Program with the FIS, paid by the candidates for the World Championships. Every candidate who will host the World Championships, they have to pay in this pot. With this money, we do seminars in the countries, coaching seminars, leadership seminars.”
To grow their potential to have competitive athletes for 2022, the Chinese Ski Federation has hired Markus Gutenbrunner, formerly a conditioning coach with the Austrian Ski Team, as head coach.
"We will not be able to earn the medals in five years, but we will be able to safely and competently take part in the Olympics," the Austrian told Kleine Zeitung in August.
The country also boasts the world’s largest indoor snow center thanks to the new facility, Wanda Indoor Ski and Winter Sports Resort in Harbin. At 500 meters in length, it is the fourth longest indoor run in the world, behind slopes in France, Germany and the Netherlands. But with a width greater than those at the European centers, it boasts a world record 72,600 square meters of indoor snow.
While skiing might not be a part of every day life in China just yet, it is a part of the region’s rich history. There are cave paintings over 10,000 years old to prove it. Kade Krichko wrote in an April 2017 New York Times article that the image may depict the oldest ski turn ever recorded.
"The ski was born in Altai between Kazakhstan and China,” he continues. “I saw pictures of the first skiers. It was not in Norway or in Finland. It was really in these countries where the hunters run with some wooden skis. This was even before Jesus Christ, but it's not in the culture of this country. It's really something new, but it's attractive for young people.”
ON THE FRINGE
Beyond the two Olympic hosts, there are skiing opportunities in other Asian nations like Kazakhstan. In fact, the country played host to the World University Games this year. Virginia Orange was amongst the alpine skiing competitors, representing New Zealand. While she enjoyed the adventure in Asia, she commented on the long trek to get to the competition venue, which included a 30-40 minute gondola ride. Orange also mentioned that while she didn't need a special visa to enter the country, she had to have special paperwork documenting that she was there for the University Games.
Zenhausern notes that places like Almaty can be great for hosting elite events, but he doesn’t think Kazakhstan will become a regular destination for skiers because of travel hurdles like these.
“The problem in all these countries is more or less the same. They all believe the Europeans, the Americans will come to their resort, and they are really dreaming,” he says.
Instead, Zenhausern suggests a more grassroots approach to grow demand for ski opportunities.
“The areas sometimes they are nice, but the infrastructure of public transportation, of food, and so on is not there,” he continues. “Hotels – it's okay. Cable cars – they are new. I always have to tell them from the morning to the evening that they should level up their own demand. They should start to create demand in their country.”
Of course, the challenge of building internally is financially limited. Reports indicate that average citizens in Kazakhstan earn around $500 USD a month, and skiing is not exactly a budget sport.
"There are rich people in the country, of course," he says. "But a lot of these rich people would like to learn to ski in the country, but then they want to go to the originals like Zermatt. They want to see Courchevel."
This is the same issue, creating repeat skiers who want to go on vacations to resorts in Europe, is one that China hopes to avoid. But there's no easy way to encourage masses in these countries to invest in lift tickets let alone the equipment required to ski. How long does it take for a country to develop a ski culture?
In Iran, they have more active FIS alpine skiers than China, and the sport continues to grow as more woman get involved. Twenty of the active FIS skiers are female. Iran has sent men to the Olympic Winter Games since the 1950s, but due to the conservative culture in the country, it wasn’t until the Vancouver Games in 2010 that an Iranian woman competed. So, there's a whole new demographic that could adopt the sport as a passion. No doubt the cultural issues that have kept women from competitive sports in Iran have also affected ski culture across the region.
While these exotic destinations might not be top of the list for most ski racers, they do have the potential for epic growth in winter sports. Who knows? Perhaps some day, these seemingly exotic winter sport countries could even be contenders for the Nations Cup.