BEAVER CREEK, Colorado (Reuters) - With the next two Winter Olympics to be staged in Asia, the International Ski Federation (FIS) will have a rare opportunity to grow snow sports in the world’s most populous continent but the seeds they plant are unlikely to bear fruit for generations to come.
The 2018 Winter Games set for the South Korean resort of Pyeongchang and with either Almaty, Kazakhstan or Beijing to be awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics, the ski industry will gain an entry point into the sporting world’s most coveted market.
New skiers from China and India filling chair lifts and resorts sprinkled across the Himalayas and seriously challenging for medals at Olympics and world championships may be a far-off dream but for FIS, it is the future they are pursuing today.
“It is important there is no question, we need new countries that have money now and organizations and that’s Asia,” FIS president Gian-Franco Kasper told Reuters. “You see it in the financial world and it is exactly the same, everything moves eastwards.
“Of course we don’t have to be every time in Asia but I think it is important for us that we have new countries, new ski resorts.
“In Kazakhstan the mountains are more or less unused and this would be a great opportunity.
“In Beijing you are in a newly developed ski area. We don’t want all Chinese skiing, one percent would be enough.
“It is a rare opportunity for us.”
Like every sport and business, FIS craves a piece of the Asian pie.
India and China have snow-capped mountains and billions of potential skiers, but the Asian market remains almost untapped outside of Japan.
For the moment it would be easier for India’s alpine ski team to scale the summit of Mount Everest than climb to the top of a World Cup medal podium.
The Indian ski federation sent a team of five skiers to the alpine worlds in Beaver Creek, all attacking the piste with purpose, but no amount of determination could mask a lack of skill as they snow-plowed their way to the bottom of the results sheets.
In the women’s giant slalom, Varsha Devi finished 96th and last, 53.53 seconds behind gold medal winner Anna Fenninger of Austria while team mate Aanchal Thakur was 95th, 33.81 seconds back as both failed to qualify for the second leg.
China produced only marginally better results with Xia Lina crossing 80th and Qin Ziyue 89th.
In the slalom, the wooden spoon went to Taiwan’s Wu Meng-Chien, who tip-toed his way down the mountain a full 63 seconds back of the leader to place 86th.
It was similar scene for the men, India’s Himanshu Thakur crossing 70th and last in the giant slalom opening leg, over 25 seconds back of the leader but just ahead of China’s Zhang Xiaosong.
For Roshan al Thakur, the manager of the India ski team and whose son and daughter form the backbone of the national squad, the results are not as disappointing as they are encouraging.
With a short three-month ski season and just three resorts in India, including one in Solang Nala in Himachal Pradesh where they train, Thakur prefers to look at how far the sport has come in India rather than how far it has to go.
When he was 12 years old, Thakur carved his first pair of skis out of a tree and now 36 years later, he stood proudly in the finish area, basking in the accomplishment that his son and daughter represented India in a world championship.
“As the economy is growing up, skiing is also now getting popular slowly,” Thakur told Reuters. “When I was 12 years old skis were not available, government, army people, some rich people had skis, so we made skis ourselves out of wood.
“Now today they are competing here on world championships.”
In a small way Asia made an impression in Beaver Creek.
Japan’s Emi Hasegawa waved the Asia flag, finishing 18th in the slalom and 28th in the giant slalom.
Korea sent a four-man team and showed some progress with Jung Dong-hyun placing 25th in the slalom and 40th in the giant slalom, offering hope of respectable showings in the alpine competition when they host the Winter Games.
“It is three years away, but everything is in progress and I think we will have a very good ski Olympics in 2018,” Korean coach Byun Jongwoo told Reuters. “Mostly we train at home but we have one racer, Jung touring World Cup.
“We have learned a lot here, how to make progress and we will put these methods into our system.”
Editing by Gene Cherry