Adrenalin junkies flock to South Island for games

It's not all about the Rugby World Cup on New Zealand's picturesque South Island.

Some of the world's best exponents of winter sports disciplines converged on the land of the long white cloud over recent weeks to test their skills in the latest instalment of the Winter Games.

Just weeks before New Zealand hosts rugby's showpiece event where the pride of the All Blacks will go on the line, the gaze of sporting fans steered towards the winter sports extravaganza, featuring events as diverse as ice hockey, giant slalom, curling and winter triathlon.

Organizers of the 16-day ice and snow sports-festival have taken advantage of New Zealand's reputation as an attractive off-season alpine training venue to set up an elite international winter sports competition, to be run every two years at the same iconic venues in the South Island regions of Otago and Canterbury.

More than 1000 athletes made their way to New Zealand for adrenalin-charged competition set against the spectacular backdrop of the Southern Alps, along with other venues dotted across the South Island.

From figure skating and speed skating in Dunedin, snowboard-cross at Wanaka's Cardronas resort, to the Alpine Super G at New Zealand's famous Mount Hutt, it has been a veritable feast for winter sports lovers.

One of the stated objectives of the games is for athletes to experience world-class competition and push the boundaries without the extreme pressure of the Winter Olympics or the Winter X Games.

The games concept was the initiative of Sir Eion Edgar, former president of the New Zealand Olympic Committee.

A key feature of the games is that able-bodied athletes have been competing alongside 'adaptive' competitors in alpine and cross-country events - in the same challenging terrain, on the same days. Removing such a distinction between athletes does not happen at the Winter or Summer Olympics.

And with fierce competition taking place in the alpine disciplines at New Zealand's famous Southern Alps venues - public locations which attract thousands of recreational skiers and snowboarders every year - spectators have been able to combine their downhill runs with daydreaming of bigger things.

The games, owned and run by the 100% Pure New Zealand Winter Games Trust with the backing of the NZ Olympic Committee and the NZ Government, will have the added importance of serving as an excellent preparation event for athletes hoping to compete in the Winter Olympics every four years.

Winter Games Alpine ski manager Wayne Cafe says the first instalment of the games in 2009 gave some winter sports athletes the chance to qualify for last year's Vancouver Olympics.

"Some of the athletes who competed in them actually qualified for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics out of the winter games results," Mr Cafe said.

"In 2013 we're expecting again a massive contingent of people to come down to attempt to qualify got the Olympics, or to compare themselves to their peers in other countries on our home turf here in New Zealand before they hit the Olympics in Sochi, Russia."

Combining the scheduling of events for able-bodied and adaptive athletes on the same program was important for organisers.

"It's not just a priority for us, it is something that the adaptive athletes are absolutely passionate about. They want to be on the same tracks, they don't want any concessions given for their particular disability or any disadvantage that they might have," Mr Cafe said.

"They see themselves as competing toe to toe with the best able-bodied there is. And it's great for them because they can compete on exactly the same tracks, on the same courses, on the same day with the same officials and everything.

"A particular standout is the visually-impaired skiers, doing probably 80-90 kilometres-an-hour down the hill and they can't see a thing. You imagine skiing at 80 kilometres an hour with a blindfold on."

The New Zealand public's enthusiasm for alpine events was plainly evident in the country town of Methven on Saturday night when thousands of spectators turned out for the thrill-a-minute 'Big Air', showcasing spectacular tricks launched from a 17-metre mound of compacted snow jump set up in the heart of the town.

Despite the chilly winter night air, spectators were transfixed by the array of heart-in-your-mouth moves from the assembled adrenalin junkies, alongside freestyle motorcross and a post-competition concert.

As for the long-term stability of the Winter Games, organisers are keeping an eye on the road ahead.

"There's a lot of scope for us to continue to improve. The first games in 2009 were a toe in the water. We happened to have a lot of countries here at the time and we also encouraged a lot more to come," Mr Cafe said.

"This year we've had quite a lot more countries arrive for the games, because of the recognition of 2009, but there's still a lot of scope to grow.

"We feel the fourth games will really get the measurement of the full potential of them. We've got two more to go before we're really at full capacity."

The writer travelled as a guest of New Zealand Ski Tourism.