For obvious reasons, the Asian Winter Games do not get much attention back in North America. Actually, I didn’t even know there was a winter version of these games until a few months ago. That being said, when the opportunity arose for my brother Bijan to compete and myself to provide team support in the 7th Asian Winter Games, we were on the next (long!) flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan!
Bijan (or Justin as he is more commonly known in some circles) has been racing for Iran for the past two seasons. Last year he traveled to Iran and raced two events at the Shemshak ski area just north of the capital Tehran to acquaint himself with the rest of the team . Yes, Iran has snow and a ski team! A very dedicated ski team at that. Bijan managed to navigate the bureaucratic avenues of Iran and was able to obtain citizenship (our father is Iranian) which then allowed him to become part of the national team, which leads us to the Asian Winter Games.
Kazakhstan? Honestly, the ‘stan countries used to get grouped together in my mind and I didn’t know much about them (aside from the comic pandering of Borat, which is way off base). Now that I have been here for a few days, I must say it is a pretty cool place. Astana, the capital is by far the most modern city I have visited. Makes me think of a futuristic, dare I say Soviet, Las Vegas. Almaty is the cultural and financial center of Kazakhstan and is where the ski events are taking place. It definitely has a “gray” feel to it but the warmth of the people brings color to any situation.
In terms of skiing in Kazakhstan, we see Kazakh’s doing pretty darn well on the World Cup circuit with current stars like Poltoranin and Chebotko, and legends like Smirnov, so obviously there must be some nice ski venues. Andrey Golovko, formerly of the Saab Subaru team is also from around here and I have run into him numerous time out on the trails – speaks volumes about the depth of the Kazakh team considering he has yet to get a start in any of the events. Maybe in the relay he tells me.
About a forty minute drive from the center of Almaty, nestled in the northern slopes of the Himalaya’s in the Tian Shan mountain range lies the “Soldiers Gorge” ski area. This is a very fitting name from an American perspective as it is a pretty good version of Soldier Hollow in Utah. The trails are brutally tough, the snow is dry, and the scenery is very reminiscent of the Salt Lake area.
The Kazakh’s have not spared any expense for these games; they are much bigger than I was expecting. The opening ceremonies were on par with any put on for the Olympics (not including Beijing in my opinion). The venues all feature these massive new structures and there are volunteers absolutely everywhere. I am pretty sure Kazakhstan is lobbying hard to get the Olympics one day soon and this is their coming out party. I was expecting something similar to the Universiade in terms of how these games feel but it definitely on a grander scale.
Racing wise, needless to say, the Kazakhs and the Japanese are going head to head in nearly every event. Each country is allowed to start two athletes and this leads to a noticeably smaller field usually not exceeding ten athletes. Its hard because there are very noticeable levels of athletes here. The Kazakhs and the Japanese are of World Cup caliber with athletes from Korea and China are nipping at their heals. Iran has impressed me immensely and I am not just saying this because I am half Iranian. Even Bjorn Dhalhie’s nemesis, Vladimir Smirnov, came up to the Iranians after the team sprint expressing how happy he was with how they skied. Iranian skiers like Shemshaki and Sattar Seid haven’t been at it the longest but are as fit as can be.
Racing has been fast and furious. Hopefully I will get a chance to write some more about the specific races soon (ski orienteering in the Kazak mountains anyone?). The camaraderie amongst the teams is something to behold as well. Today the Kazakh technicians put structure in all our race skis while the Japanese gave us some Swix powder. I also witnessed the Koreans waxing the Indian and Afghan skis just prior to the 15km skate event. Pretty cool to be part of this event I must say! Tomorrow is our first rest day then two more events to go before its back to Canada for me…