The Winter Games starting in Queenstown yesterday (Thursday) has a top coach likening it to the Olympics – but with “deeper” athlete fields.
United States coach Mike Jankowski, who’s touched down with most of his 50-plus athletes, says organisers have turned it into a high-calibre event.
“The best in the world are here throughout all the disciplines, for the most part,” he says of the third Winter Games.
Comparing it to the Winter Olympics – looming in February in Russia – Jankowski explains quotas restricting national Olympic team sizes don’t apply at the Games.
“So the fields here are larger. For the US, we have a pretty deep field of men and women in halfpipe and many of the other disciplines. We’re able to start more than four men and four women, we can start eight – and we are.”
Jankowski, who oversees star-studded US snowboard and freeski teams, adds: “The field here is deeper than the Olympics – it truly is.”
In glamour event snowboard halfpipe, for example, the entire men’s and women’s podiums from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics are lining up.
Snowboard halfpipe gold medallist Shaun White – dotting down this week – is one of many global stars here for the Games.
Jankowski says most athletes who’ve already secured Olympic qualification are still coming for preparation: “They’re all coming down as they want to stay sharp and be training and riding in a high-pressure environment.”
The accolades are testament to the Games organisers’ new approach which focuses on hosting events likely to attract six or more of the world’s top 10.
Another part of the 2013 Audi quattro Winter Games’ attraction is it features six World Cup events – more than any other international event – which athletes can use to get into the Olympics.
It’s not just visiting coaches like Jankowski fizzing – former Winter Olympian and Queenstown ex-skier-cross pro Mitchey Greig says the World Cups are massive.
“I never thought I’d see it in New Zealand. The opportunities it’s creating for NZ athletes are incredible and they should not be taking it for granted.”
They aren’t – many Kiwi snow athletes spoken to by Mountain Scene are eyeing the Games events as a key path toward potential Olympic berths.
Winter Games chief executive Arthur Klap says the more than 750 athletes coming include Olympic and world champions from all major winter sports nations – and he expects more than 30 Games entrants to medal at the Olympics.
“The start lists this year are absolutely out of this world.
“This is a true testament to the standing of Winter Games NZ on a global stage where it’s now established as one of the top five international events on the winter sports circuit.”
The Games started yesterday morning (Thursday) at Snow Farm near Wanaka with cross-country skiing. Olympic gold medallist Nikita Kriukov of Russia is in the men’s and Olympic medallist Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland is in the women’s.
Podium finishers were at the opening ceremony at Queenstown’s Games Village in Earnslaw Park for their medal presentation.
The village, featuring marquees, bars and giant TVs plus Lotto giveaways, opens from 1pm.