Hockey Costs

How countries without snow participate in the Winter Olympics

YANQING, China — One by one, they zigzagged up the mountain near the end of a line of nearly 90 runners in a snowy giant slalom, looking more like weekend ski enthusiasts than competitors world class.

Many of the skiers were first-time Olympians, brought together by one very relevant thing they have in common: a shortage of snow in the countries they represent in Beijing, including Jamaica, Ghana, India, East Timor and Morocco.

“I always say, ‘There is a first league, and there is a second league. We are, for sure, the second league,’ said Carlos Maeder, 43, who represents Ghana and is the top skier. oldest in this year’s Games. “Maybe even the third league,” he added with a laugh.

Maeder, who is ranked 2,443rd in the world in giant slalom, was able to qualify for the Olympics in part thanks to a change in qualifying criteria aimed at producing a more diverse field of competitors.

Aware that skiing has been dominated by athletes from wealthier and colder countries, the International Olympic Committee and world governing body for skiing have attempted to make the sport more inclusive through a quota system that lowers the qualification threshold .

But the move put a sour edge on what was supposed to be a well-meaning diversity effort. It has sparked increasing scrutiny over whether skiers have tried to gamble with a system designed to give them the best chance of qualifying and has raised questions about whether the Olympics can be both a elite competition and an inclusive global sports festival.

Critics accused the skiers of manipulating three races they hosted and entered in the final weeks of the Olympic qualifying period. The International Ski Federation said it was reviewing the races, held in December and January, and the results could lead to penalties for anyone breaking its rules.

He declined to specify which races he was reviewing, although there were no more than four in that period. He also asked the IOC to adjust its quota system to include more places for qualified competitive skiers. This year, Austria got two more places, while Germany and France got one each.

“I was never going to be competitive,” said Benjamin Alexander, a 38-year-old Jamaican skier and former DJ. He finished last in the giant slalom in a race on Sunday. “The people I was competing against started skiing at age 2 and had their first race training at age 4 or 5,” he said.

Mr. Alexander started skiing at the age of 32.

The dust in Beijing has its roots after the 2018 Winter Olympics, when the IOC reduced the number of alpine skiers allowed to compete in the Games from 320 to 306. To ensure gender equity, he said that each country could no longer send. than 11 men or 11 women. Those limits, combined with looser qualification standards, have prompted some traditional winter sports powerhouses, such as Austria, to complain.

Even though the field has become more diverse – a central goal of the IOC – many elite skiers who depend on the sport for a living now say they are being left behind. This can potentially affect their sponsorships, the main source of income for any top professional skier.

But some say the loss is a gain for countries like Haiti and Saudi Arabia. Both nations made their Winter Games debut in Beijing, with alpine skiers. The Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand have also sent ski teams to the Olympics.

To get here, the so-called exotics, as many of these skiers call themselves, earned enough qualifying points in lower level races. To do this, some skiers organize their own races, which guarantees less competition.

The races, held in places like Liechtenstein, Montenegro and Dubai, caught the eye of Federiga Bindi, a professor of political science at the University of Rome Tor Vergata and director of a ski academy. Last month she wrote a trial for Ski Racing Media pointing out that the Liechtenstein race had only 10 competitors.

A separate report that was filed with the International Ski Federation and reviewed by The New York Times suggested that the races were rigged and that skiers with high performance histories had “grossly underperformed” to allow athletes to small nations to gain the necessary qualifications. points for going to the Olympics.

One of those elite athletes, according to the report, was Cristian Javier Simari Birkner, a four-time Olympian from Argentina.

Reached by telephone, Mr. Simari Birkner, who has raced in Montenegro and Liechtenstein, said: “Of course, I didn’t do 110%. But that doesn’t mean I slowed down on purpose or anything like that. He said his travel and accommodation costs were paid for by the race organisers, as in World Cup and European races, but he was not paid for his participation.

Mr. Simari Birkner blamed the setback on the system that had been put in place. “The Olympic Committee and the International Ski Federation – they should figure out if they want to have an international event, with 80, 90 or 120 countries, or if they want to have an event where they invite six countries to race and that’s finished,” he said.

The International Ski Federation’s investigation into these races was first reported by The Washington Post. For athletes from nations with little snow, the fallout from the Games has been disheartening.

“There’s a lot of negative press out there, and what that tells us is that there are a lot of countries that don’t want other nations involved right now,” Mr Alexander said. , who made history on Sunday as the first Alpine Skier to represent Jamaica at the Olympic Games.

He denied that qualifying races, including several he helped organize, were manipulated. “If the Olympics is pretty much the 10 countries that go after all the medals, then the other 190 countries are bored, and that’s bad for all of us,” he said.

The backlash cast a cloud over what was supposed to be a feel-good story.

In August 2020, Yohan Goutt Goncalves, a skier from East Timor, contacted Mr. Alexander on Instagram after reading a profile about him. “Just read your story, man,” Mr. Goutt Goncalves wrote. “Good luck. Let’s take the smaller nations to the Olympics.

Three-time Olympian Mr Goutt Goncalves set up a WhatsApp group last year, bringing together all the skiers he had met representing the tropics. He cheekily named it “Athletes from Exotic Nations”.

When Mr. Goutt Goncalves participated in the 2014 Winter Olympics, it was the first time East Timor, one of the poorest countries in the world, fielded an athlete for the Games. Mr Goutt Goncalves said he chose to represent the Southeast Asian nation because he wanted to raise the profile of the country where his mother was born.

Most of the athletes in the WhatsApp group come from equally small nations. They pay for their own travel and divide the costs among themselves.

“If you have money, you can have staff and train anywhere in the world,” said Bogdan Gligor, who coaches Mr Goutt Goncalves. He spent a recent Tuesday morning dragging the bags of three skiers up the Yanqing Mountains, where alpine sports take place.

Many of the band members say the odds have long been stacked against them. Almost all of these skiers have full-time jobs. Mr Maeder, the skier from Ghana, said it took him four or five years to pursue his dream of reaching the Olympics without a coach or support from a national federation.

“It means a lot to raise the flag of Ghana as a winter sports nation,” he said. He and the others know they have no chance of winning a medal, but for them it doesn’t matter.

Yassine Aouich, a Moroccan skier who made his Olympic debut on Sunday, said he only skied for about two weeks last year as the coronavirus pandemic prevented him from traveling to France, where he usually trains.

“You know, qualifying for us is – it’s like the gold medal,” he said.