Olympics-Korean Air scheme to help local sliders hit new heights

By Narae Kim

SEOUL, March 26 (Reuters) - National flag carrier Korean Air has announced it will build bobsleighs for the South Korean team to use at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, a decision that caught many by surprise - including the country's bobsleigh association.

Korean Air said on Tuesday it would form a consortium in April and invite experts from several universities, including Korea National Sports University (KNSU), to help design and produce two and four-man sleds and blades.

However, an official at Korea's bobsleigh association told Reuters on Wednesday that there had been no consultations with the airline company and certainly no decisions made.

"Korean Air has announced this unilaterally, we have not been in talks with them regarding the matter," he said by telephone. "None of the coaches or athletes knew about this before it came out in the media."

He added, however, the airline's help would be most welcome.

"We are grateful for Korean Air's offer and we will consider using the bobsleighs they make."

South Korea's bobsleigh team were dubbed "Miracles on Asphalt" ahead of the Sochi Winter Games, a reference to their inadequate training facilities which lack a proper ice-track for athletes to practice the all-important push start.

The team have also had to make do with second-hand sleds, even having to borrow them from rivals at competitions when their equipment broke.

National bobsleigh coach Lee Yong had called on local automakers to make the sleds, in the same way as BMW does for the U.S. team, and while news of Korean Air's involvement may be a surprise, it would be a welcome development.

Korean Air said in a statement it would apply its "cutting-edge aerodynamic technology and composite material manufacture technology" to make the sleds, adding that the project was born out of chairman Cho Yang-ho's affection for winter sports.

Cho had heard about the Korean bobsleigh team's struggles and decided to step in, ordering his staff to launch the project, it said in a statement.

Development is to take place in May, with a prototype to be completed around November with testing and additional work to continue through February next year. Upgraded models are to be produced every year until the Olympics in 2018.

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The airline's media relations department said no one was being kept in the dark about the project.

"I think the only one who doesn't know this is the PR person at the bobsleigh association," the spokesperson said by telephone.

South Korean Kang Kwang-bae, vice president of international bobsleigh's ruling body and a professor at KNSU, said he and Cho had come up with the idea of a partnership in Sochi.

"It is true that the Korean association doesn't know whether the sleds Korean Air makes will be used in 2018 for certain," Kang told Reuters by telephone on Wednesday. "It a long-term project and no one knows exactly what will happen."

Kang said that while other nations' bobsleigh teams used automaking technology from prestigious car companies such as BMW and Ferrari, South Korea would be the first to take advantage of aerospace engineering.

"The biggest lesson we can learn from this... is that it can be an exemplary case of joint collaboration between sports and conglomerates, who will muster their knowledge and experience for the advancement of sports science," added Kang.

"In order for South Korea to become a strong sports nation, we need help from big companies. There are things that the government alone cannot solve. I hope this project provides hope and opportunities for other sports that are struggling to find assistance."

Kang, who said that the national skeleton team would also benefit from Korean Air's technology, added that the financing details of the project had yet to be worked out.

"I am not sure if Korean Air will finance the entire budget or will ask other parties... to split the bill because it was a top-down decision," he said.

"I couldn't really ask him how much he was willing to pay when we were first talking about the matter. We will work it out in our first meeting in April." (Writing by Peter Rutherford; Editing by John O'Brien)