PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - “We’re just a few minutes away from going live around the world! Are you ready to count down?”
The voice of the race commentator boomed across a largely empty tribune, 10 minutes before the start of the men’s Olympic super-G event on Friday in which the world’s fastest skiers were about to storm down the mountain.
On a bright, sunny day at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre, which can hold 6,500 spectators, well under a thousand were scattered in the main stand and beside the finish line.
A number of athletes acknowledged the lack of race atmosphere was discouraging.
“A little bit disappointed, for sure. It’s definitely not Austria,” said gold medal winner Matthias Mayer, referring to the frenzied atmosphere of World Cup races in his own country.
U.S. double Olympic champion Ted Ligety told Reuters: “South Korea’s not a huge Alpine nation, so you’re not really expecting it to be like Austria or Switzerland.
“But you know when you’re at the Olympics it’s always nice to have a raucous crowd to cheer you on.”
Over at the Yongpyong Alpine Centre, where the women’s giant slalom and slalom have so far taken place, the biggest noise this week has come from North Korea’s 100-strong regiment of cheerleaders.
Attendances for the Alpine events have been even thinner than in Sochi four years ago, where sparse crowds were blamed on a lack of strong entrants from the host country, Russia.
In Pyeongchang, this week’s New Year holiday and the rescheduling of races because of high winds earlier in the week may also have kept people away.
France’s Blaise Giezendanner, who finished fourth in the super-G, blamed the lack of crowd enthusiasm on the distance from Europe and the greater focus in Asia on ice events.
“We knew it would be like this. It’s different. We’re at the other side of the world, it’s night-time where we live. These are the ice games, if you watch TV... Korea isn’t a ski country, we knew that already.”
In Europe, tens of thousands of spectators line courses for the classic races in Alpine nations like Switzerland and Austria, honking horns and clanging cowbells to greet racers as they charge for the line.
But cost and environmental concerns have thrown up roadblocks in recent years to European efforts to host the Winter Olympics, with bids being rejected at referendums in Switzerland, Germany and Austria.
With China due to stage the next Games in 2022, and possibly Japan in 2026, the Alpine skiers may have to get used to their lower Olympic profile.
“You always want to have a lot of spectators and a lot of cheering, and it’s different to what we are used to on the World Cup tour,” said Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud, who took the super-G bronze.
“But it’s also a humbling experience for all of us to realise we’re not the centre of attention in the world, by any means.”
Additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney; editing by Sudipto Ganguly