LONDON - China and South Korea have produced world-class athletes in several winter sports, but alpine skiing events are notable exceptions.
As South Korea prepares to host the 2018 Winter Olympics, it is a situation the host country might be keen to change, but one former ski champion believes it is too late to groom any stars.
Two-time Canadian Olympian Ken Read, who won five World Cup races between 1975 and 1980, is familiar with the Asian scene in his role with the International Ski Federation.
Read says nearly all world class downhill and slalom skiers are born virtually with skis on their feet and that it takes at least a decade to hone the skills necessary to be internationally competitive, which is why the events continue to be dominated by Europeans and North Americans.
While gymnasts and divers can often quickly be taught the transfer skills needed to become top freestyle aerial skiers, the same does not apply to the alpine disciplines, he says.
“You can take gymnasts and divers and teach them to fly on skies. They pick it up quickly and, bingo, you have some of the best in the world,” Read told Reuters.
“In alpine skiing, you need a (long) gestation period. Typically, the top skiers have been on skis since a very young age.”
So though both China, which won two medals in freestyle aerials at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and South Korea have some good freestyle skiers, China currently has no one on the World Cup alpine ski circuit and South Korea just one competitive slalom skier, Jung Dong-hyun.
“Korea has a healthy ski community and they’ve been trying hard for a while to get some breadth (in various events),” said Read, the chairman of the FIS’s youth and children sub-committee.
“Jung Dong-hyun is no slouch but as far as I know there’s nobody else from Korea at that level.”
China has dozens of ski resorts and up to 5 million skiers according to some estimates, but Read thinks the country has all but given up on alpine skiing, instead focusing on the freestyle events.
“From the outside looking in, it seems they have decided alpine skiing is not for them,” he said. “Money allocation helps and if the (China) ski federation doesn’t make it a priority, that makes it pretty hard.
“There are no good juniors in China. They’re not producing anybody.”
Read suspects that if Beijing wins the bid to host the 2022 Winter Games, then China might start devoting resources to alpine events.
But he thinks it already is too late to develop anyone capable of challenging for a medal.
Japan has a strong tradition in winter sports, particularly ski jumping, but has collected only one alpine skiing Olympic medal — a silver in men’s slalom in 1956 — and currently has only one man and one woman on the World Cup alpine circuit.
Read says Japan’s development as an alpine skiing nation took a “massive hit” from the recession in the 1990s.
Skiing is surprisingly popular in warm-weather Australia, where national alpine program director Brad Wall agrees with Read that alpine skiers need to be nurtured from an early age.
“Alpine skiing is an extremely difficult sport for talent transfer from other sports later in an athlete’s career,” Wall said.
“This model is extremely successful in aerial skiing for Australia, where many athletes have come from gymnastics backgrounds.”
Wall says Australia’s best chance for an alpine medal in 2018 is Greta Small, who finished in 15th in the combined event in Sochi at the age of 18. He expects her to have an even better chance in 2022.