The Sochi Network

On a sled and a prayer, Korea’s ‘Miracles on Asphalt’

For South Korea's "Miracles on Asphalt" bobsleigh team, having ice on the track is a big problem.

Chilled to the bone by the biting cold of the Taebaek Mountain range, officials from the Korea Bobsleigh Skeleton Federation use shovels and mops to smash and sweep ice from the 'push track', which simulates the action at the start of a run.

The Alpensia Ski Resort in Pyeongchang, which is to host the 2018 Winter Games, has no proper ice track and athletes have to push their sleds on rails to practice the all-important start.

Despite the inadequate facilities, South Korea will compete in the skeleton at the February 7-23 Sochi Games, as well as sending two teams in both the men's two- and four-man bobsleigh events and a two-woman bobsleigh team.

"It's just unbelievable we have come this far with nothing," said Lee Yong, coach of the national bobsleigh team, as he watched the four-man Korea A team practice their start.

"We have at most three years of experience... some even have only one year. It's just incredible we are going to the Olympics to compete against the world's most seasoned bobsledders with 15 or 20 years of experience."

Earlier this month, the two-man teams finished first and second in the seventh round of the North American Cup, an annual international development circuit, the first time South Korea took the top two podium spots at an international bobsleigh competition.

In skeleton, 20-year-old Yun Sung-bin became the first Korean to win a gold when he won the sixth round of the Intercontinental Cup in Canada earlier this month. He will also be heading to the Russian black sea resort for the Games.

While conditions at home have improved in the two-and-a-half years since Pyeongchang was awarded hosting rights for the 2018 Games, coaches said they were in dire need of support if they were to have a chance of winning medals on home ice.

"We should be grateful for having this push track, even though it's asphalt, but in order to prevent injuries and recruit talented athletes we need an ice push track as soon as possible," said Cho In-ho, head coach of the skeleton team.

"An athlete broke his collarbone the other day here on asphalt. He might just have had bruises if it had been ice."

Expensive equipment and travel costs put more strain on the cash-strapped teams.

"Two-man and four-man sleds cost 120 million won (66,894) and 180 million won (£100,342) each," said bobsleigh coach Lee, adding that Korea's sleds were still not 'A' quality.

"Though we have our own sleds and no longer have to borrow from our competitors, they are still B-rated.

"Germany has more than 100 sets of blades for different weather and ice conditions but we only have one set.

"We hope Korean automobile manufacturers will make sleds for us just like BMW does for the US team."

But the financial straightjacket was not the most serious threat to Korea's medal hopes in 2018, said Lee.

In South Korea, all able-bodied men are required to serve in the military for about two years, meaning many athletes have to disrupt their training while at their physical peak.

"The whole country is talking about the possibility of winning a medal in bobsleigh in 2018 but how on earth is it possible when four out of the eight bobsledders must enlist in the military after Sochi?" coach Lee said, his voice rising.

"People say how proud they are of us for having made it to the Olympics even without a full-course track, dubbing us the 'Miracles of Asphalt', but the government says it cannot make a military team for us because there is no track to practice.

"I do not know how to dance to their tune," added Lee.

In December last year, South Korea's two-woman bobsleigh team overturned the sled during a competition in Utah and they had no support staff who could repair it.

They had to swallow their pride and borrow a sled from the Jamaican men's team, who had failed to progress to the next round.

"We were so embarrassed back then because we are from a richer country that actually has winter," said Kim Jung-su, head coach of the women's bobsleigh team.

"But now we refuse to be called the Korean version of 'Cool Runnings' because we have already passed that stage... we overcame those growing pains," Kim told Reuters.

Jamaica's ground-breaking quartet of Devon Harris, Dudley Stokes, Michael White and Nelson Christian Stokes made a moving debut at the 1988 Calgary Games that inspired the bobsleigh movie "Cool Runnings".

Skeleton coach Cho said the lean years had made them stronger.

"Had it not been for the 'Cool Runnings' period, we would not be here now. It hardened our will and sharpened all our ambitions.

"Only with a little bit of assistance will we fly right here in Pyeongchang."

Reuters