PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Norwegian Alpine skiing great Aksel Lund Svindal made history by winning a thrilling Olympic downhill race in the Pyeongchang mountains on Thursday but was a little disappointed that so few people were around to see it.
The men’s downhill has long been branded the blue riband event of the Winter Olympics but only a couple of thousand fans turned up on a beautiful sunny day at the Jeongseon Alpine Center, which was constructed especially for the Games.
There was no visit from the North Korean cheerleaders who have graced most of the major venues and very few locals in the half empty stands as 35-year-old Svindal edged compatriot Kjetil Jansrud to give Norway its first gold in the marquee event.
“I think it’s a little bit strange, to be honest, that we’re having the Olympics and there’s that few people in the stands, and it’s a bit sad,” Svindal said.
“If we had this race in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Norway, Sweden it would be packed, it would be 50,000 people, probably in the U.S. too.”
Svindal said the downhill being postponed from Sunday and then bumping the super-G off the Thursday schedule to Friday had probably not helped the crowd size, even if he applauded the decision of organizers to do it.
He also thought that having the Games in Asia was always going to hurt the attendance at a sport whose heartland is the mountains of Europe and North America.
“The Olympics is a worldwide thing. In Norway no one would watch short track (speed skating), for example. The people watching short track would fly in from Asia probably,” he said.
“And here it’s packed at the short-track. The Olympics is bigger than just Alpine skiing. If Alpine skiing is not big deal here, that’s too bad for us, but hopefully there are other sports that are a big deal and they get good crowds there.”
The bad news for Alpine skiing is that the next Winter Games are also in Asia, in China in 2022, and the 2026 Games could yet go to Japan.
Some critics might also point at the huge crowds that have packed out the Phoenix Snow Park for the snowboard finals over the last few days as evidence that Alpine organizers need to refresh their model if they are to remain a central plank of the Games.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury