Last week, Pyeongchang, South Korea earned the winning bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. This is big news, of course, for everybody in South Korea, and it's particularly big news for South Koreans interested in freeskiing events.
As new as halfpipe and slopestyle are in the U.S. and Europe, the sports are in their infancy in Korea. Recent announcements that those disciplines would become Olympic events in 2014 accelerated the sport's growth in all countries, including Korea. And now that the country is officially hosting the Olympics, it might just turn Korea into a freeski powerhouse.
In 2009, I visited Phoenix Park Ski Resort, the epicenter of Korean freeskiing. What made it the epicenter was about 10 guys on twin tips, skiing the terrain park daily in the midst of 10 times as many snowboarders. Of the 10, six lived together at the base of the mountain in a two-room apartment arranged for by Kim Jooyong, or X Dragon for short, the de facto leader of Korea's freeskiing movement. They rolled up their beds every morning to reclaim the scarce floor space for living.
Instead of epicenter, I should say birthplace. The handful of freestyle skiers I met at Phoenix were, in terms of skill level, a couple of years behind the standard at the time in North America and Europe. That time lag is still reflected in international competition, with no athlete representing Korea in slopestyle or pipe at either Winter X or the Winter Dew Tour. That's not a knock on Korean freeskiers. It's evidence of how new the sport is in the country.
In terms of skill level and participant base, these are gaps that ought to close rapidly for Korea, now that it will be hosting the Winter Games that will feature only the second ski slopestyle and halfpipe competitions in Olympic history (the first, of course, will be Sochi, Russia, in 2014). These fledgling sports represent an opportunity for Korea to take medals home for a comparatively low-risk investment in athletes and training. If you want to get on the figure skating podium, you have to beat out tens of thousands of legitimate competitors worldwide. On the other hand, skiers with a shot at the Olympic superpipe or slopestyle surely still number in the hundreds.
And when you've already got guys like Kim Jooyong organizing unofficial teams of skiers ready to live like sardines so they can ride terrain parks, imagine what a little national foundation money can do. Plus, Phoenix Park, like most Korean ski resorts, operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week throughout the ski season. I imagine the talent gap has already tightened significantly in the last two years. And it's not the only gap that is fixing to close.
The other gap is the DMZ. The closed border between North and South was the subject of lament for the South Koreans who I met. According to them, the mountains are bigger and it snows more in North Korea. Most seasons South Korean ski resorts open primarily on manmade snow. If not for decades of political tension, radical powder would lie a mere day's drive north for the freeskiers I met. And we complain about the wait at the U.S.-Canada border.
The day after the IOC's announcement on Pyeongchang, news surfaced that South Korean lawmakers agreed to push to send an inter-Korean team to the 2018 Games. If that initiative gains traction, it could result in unprecedented terrain access for South Koreans who make the national team. Knowing nothing about the freestyle skiing scene in North Korea, I would still bet that most of the necessary training infrastructure — terrain parks, halfpipes, etc. — lies south of the border. Nevertheless, when it comes to crossing a closed, military-guarded border for some fresh tracks, it never hurts to ask.