Gangwon mix ski jumps with football, soar back into South Korea's top flight
It takes a brave man or woman to stand at the top of the ski jump at Alpensia Resort in South Korea and push off but there will be plenty ready to do so in Feb. 2018, as the best from around the world compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
This past weekend, however, all the attention was on what was going on at the bottom. There was snow on the slopes with over 5,000 fans sat around, but the sport was football.
Gangwon FC, the team that represents the eastern province that is home to Pyeongchang, was hosting FC Seoul in their first home match of the 2017 K-League season, one that sees them return to the top flight after relegation in 2015.
All of their home games this season will take place at the Alpensia arena. In a move that is part publicity for the games and the club, there can be few settings as spectacular in the world game as this. The stadium may contain only three sides, but the fourth stretches up over 100 metres high into the mountainside.
It looks beautiful and is certainly a great advert for the game and how the facilities may be made to work for the local community long after the skiers, skaters and scribes have gone home. And, as Gangwon are a provincial team, fans are accustomed to travelling to its biggest cities like Chuncheon (hometown of Son Heung-Min and the famous dakgalbi dish) and Gangneung to watch their heroes.
Pyeongchang is a little different, though. It may be the host of the Olympics, but it is little more than a village in the mountains and relatively remote in terms of what is one of the most crowded countries in the world.
"If you look at Pyeongchang within Gangwon province overall, it is in a location where it connects with other cities, so it won't be more difficult for fans to get to the stadium," said Lee Hyun-yong, a public relations official of the club, when the plan was announced in December. "We are also planning to run shuttle buses to various cities in Gangwon Province such as Chuncheon and Gangneung so that it is more accessible for fans."
By the time the torch is lit next February the high-speed rail link from Seoul will be operational, as will improved transport links within the province itself, but that was of small comfort last weekend.
It was not that accessible for fans on an opening day that saw plenty of teething problems. The planned shuttle bus services could not get close enough to the stadium given the heavy traffic around, according to the club's official Facebook feed, and fans were dumped two kilometres away.
Gangwon took plenty of heat on social media with complaints about the transport arrangements, facilities at the stadium and high ticket prices for away fans.
The players were not that happy, either. It may have been easy on the eye for the observer, but the playing surface was poor. Korea struggles with its pitches given its harsh winters and brittle local grass, but this was worse than most. "This is not a place to play football," said Dejan Damjanovic after the game. These were no sour grapes, as the Montenegrin marksman scored the game's only goal for Seoul.
Gangwon have apologised more than once and promised to get it right in time for the next home match. The situation will surely improve and those who attended the first game will get free tickets for the next.
There will be more away fans who are sure to be interested in attending such a unique venue before the Winter Olympics comes to town. It could be that such issues are useful for event organisers, too, as they get an idea of the challenges involved in moving spectators around the area.
Soaring ski jumps and football are not a common mix and while Gangwon's idea is interesting and unique, the team will be looking for a fresh start as spring starts to roll around.
Pohang Steelers are the next visitors to the ski-jumping stadium on Saturday when the temperatures should be a little warmer with spring on the way, even in the mountains. Gangwon will also be looking for a fresh start to deal with the practicalities of an interesting and unique idea.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.