Holy trees spark debate on future of Olympic downhill course

JEONGSEON, South Korea (AP) — The long-term future of the downhill course for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics is coming under the spotlight this weekend at the Alpine skiing test event for the games.

Local organizers are hoping that the attractiveness of a completely new venue — the first of its kind in South Korea — will help shape the debate with environmentalists and pilgrims trekking to sacred trees lining the course.

When the venue site was selected a few years ago, the local Gangwon province agreed with environmentalists that they would replant the trees cut down and restore the area to its natural state once the games conclude.

"As far as I know today that plan is still valid," Pyeongchang organizing committee chief Cho Yang-ho told a small group of foreign reporters Friday in the race finish area.

The 2.8-kilometer-long (1.7-mile-long) Jeongseon downhill course is a rare competition-only venue for a sport that normally relies on resorts with a variety of runs for tourists.

Located about a 45-minute drive from the Alpensia resort that will host the mountain cluster for the games, the downhill venue features only the race course, an adjacent training run and a slalom piste for the combined event. There are no other runs, no permanent lodge or restaurant and no plans to expand.

Construction of the single gondola was only completed last month following a series of delays that nearly forced the test event to be postponed.

"We transplanted the trees and plants to another location right now and we will bring back and recover most of it," Cho said.

Skiers are mystified by the lack of legacy plans.

"I cannot believe it," said Italy's Christof Innerhofer, who won a silver in downhill and a bronze in combined at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. "I'm sure it's a big opportunity for the Korean people to have more passion for skiing, to have more athletes. That must be the goal to do Olympic Games in new states — to have more countries that follow the sport."

Indeed, bankrolled by a president who also controls the Lotte Group conglomerate, the Korean Ski Association is pumping 5 billion won (more than $4 million) into the test event and the development of Korean skiers.

One Korean racer, Kim Hyeon-tae, will make his World Cup super-G debut in Sunday's race, and nearly all of the forerunners are Koreans.

"We needed an additional downhill in Asia," International Ski Federation president Gian-Franco Kasper said. "We have Japan, we have now Korea and we will have China very soon, which means the World Cup can have a series in China, Korea and Japan."

Kasper added that he was "100 percent" sure that the course would be kept.

"No question," he said. "Koreans are intelligent people, they know what to do."

Part of the problem goes beyond environmentalists' concerns.

The venue is also a pilgrimage site for local women praying for fertility at several sacred trees.

"I understand the environmentalists but it was difficult to explain here why they want to protect it," said course designer Bernhard Russi, the 1972 Olympic champion. "I went up with them and said, 'Tell me now where the trees are, because I can go right or left.'"

When locals explained to Russi that there were more holy trees on the proposed women's course, he scrapped plans for two courses and just cut a single track for both genders.

"We haven't ruined more than three or four special trees," Russi said.

One of the sacred trees is adjacent to the downhill course and was left standing.

"It's strange," Russi said.

However, the former Swiss racer wouldn't enter into the legacy debate over his creation.

"We should leave that to the Koreans," he said. "They have to decide what they want to do. ... I can say this mountain (adapts) for much more than racing."

Returning the venue to its natural state would entail more than simply replanting trees.

Tons of landfill were hauled 500 meters (yards) up the mountain to provide a flat finish area over a stream bed that previously carved into a sharp valley.

"There's 60 meters (yards) of fill," FIS technical operations manager Mike Kertesz said. "So much work went into making this because we needed a flat area to work with all of our facilities."

"Hopefully when people come and see what we've built and what's here they could go, 'Hmmm, maybe we could use that? Maybe there could be a speed program and this could be a great training facility?'" Kertesz added. "The facilities are World Cup class."

The course in Sochi was also newly designed by Russi and discussions are ongoing about selecting the downhill venue for the 2022 Beijing Games — meaning that the downhills at three consecutive Olympics could be held on completely new courses.

"It's ridiculous that they're giving these Olympic events to places that aren't going to do it sustainably," said American racer Andrew Weibrecht, a two-time Olympic medalist in super-G. "That should be part of the criteria for a bid — 'Do you have at least half of the venues or do you have to build them all?'

For his part, Cho would like at the very least to keep the gondola in place.

"Even if they replant it still we can use (the) gondola," he said. "I went to the Dolomites and all of the mountains in the summer are used by hikers going up (lifts). So why can't we do it? A lot of Koreans love hiking."

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Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asdampf


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