South Korea will host its first World Cup ski event in early February
The next two Winter Olympics will be held in Asia
A short distance away from the hustle and bustle of the World Cup skiing event in Beaver Creek, Colorado, late last year, a group of eager South Korean visitors huddled together under the instruction of local stewards.
Donning nimble short skis and dressed in de rigueur snowboard attire, the team had traveled to the legendary Birds of Prey course to learn the secrets of putting on a world class winter sports event.
And in good time.
Jeongseong in South Korea hosted its first World Cup meet at the beginning of February, the first of 24 test events before it welcomes downhill super-G and combined races of the 2018 Winter Olympics which has been awarded to nearby Pyeongchang.
The Korean team spent much of their time on the Colorado powder learning the unglamorous basics, such as erecting safety nets.
But in the thin Rocky Mountain air 3,000 meters above sea level, even these rudimentary tasks were lung-busting work for the uninitiated.
“(I’m) a little bit tired … my physicality is empty” puffed one. Another chimed in: “It’s a very tough and very tir(ing) program but everybody (here) likes Korea, everybody loves Korea.”
However, practicing the basics paid off. February’s World Cup event went off without a hitch with Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud taking victory in the downhill and Carlo Janka of Switzerland triumphing in the Super G.
American skier Steven Nyman even told reporters the course was “a lot of fun to ski” and similar to Beaver Creek, while Italy’s Dominik Paris also spoke of a “pretty cool” hill with “snow preparation (that) was very good.”
Creating a crew of experts
While South Korea hosted the summer Olympics in 1988, it has little experience in organizing major winter sports events.
It has therefore sought out the knowledge of resorts and courses that have been there and done it to get itself up to speed.
At Beaver Creek, the visiting party was operating under the supervision of former World Cup race director Hans Pieren.
“They never had a World Cup speed event in Korea so we really have to catch up all this know-how in a very short time,” Pieren said, speaking before the event. “If you see other World Cup organizers they have experience for decades.”
Pieren said his South Korean students were quick learners despite the amount they had to take in and would be an asset to organizers at home, even after Jeonseong’s big debut.
“This crew will be the experts to teach the others, to spread the know-how that we are able to do these races over there,” Pieren said.
Starting at the foot of the mountain
It’s not just the event organizers being trained up to meet the demands of putting on the big winter sports show.
The South Koreans have also brought in some of the best in the business to design their alpine resort for 2018.
Canada’s Paul Mathews is accustomed to building resorts where there are none, having previously worked on the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
His work in the Black Sea resort town led to a number of meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a keen skier. It also affirmed to Mathews the potential for skiing in Eastern European countries like Russia, Ukraine and the Balkan states.
But with Pyeongchang set to host the winter Games in 2018 followed by Beijing, China, in 2022, Mathews says he and fellow course designers are increasingly turning their attention to Asia.
“Korea and China are really the new hot spots for us as resort designers,” Mathews said. “We’re there. We’re doing a lot of cool projects. We’re getting full support, mostly from the private sector but also from the governments.”
Mathews has already worked on designing three resorts in China. And he revealed explaining what is possible is often more of a concern than pitching to skeptical audiences that need convincing.
“In China we asked for large areas to be looked at. They had some ideas where some venues could be but actually we didn’t follow any of those suggestions. We proposed our own new ideas because we know what’s required.”
A blank canvas
Despite this lack of experience, the enthusiasm many Asian nations have to create and build new courses is something that excites Mathews.
“You get to build first-class facilities that will be used for international competition, that will showcase the areas to the worldwide audience,” Mathews said.
“These countries typically didn’t have winter sports. If the Olympics kick it off they get some infrastructure and it tells their citizens that it’s a good thing. I think it’s really positive,” he added.
Back on the Beaver Creek slopes in December, this was a sentiment echoed by the South Korean worker Jimin Park.
“(We) want to have successful Olympics so that’s why (we)’re working hard,” Park enthused.
For old-hands such as Pieren, this attitude will go a long way to ensuring events like the skiing World Cup and Winter Olympics make the transition into new markets.
“(It’s) hard work, but they know and they go for it,” Pieren said.