It’s snowing in Western Mass. for the second day in a row and I’ve been watching the Winter Olympics in the background this weekend. Like most Americans, the winter sports aren’t ones I follow regularly – I’d be hard pressed to tell you who’s on our bobsled team, and now that Michelle Kwan has bowed out of figure skating, I don’t know who’s representing our nation there, either. Instead, I’m rooting for the underdogs.
201 nations competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics. There’s a whole lot fewer participating in the Winter Olympics – 85, according to the NBC Olympic website, but they may be missing some of the smaller teams – including powerhouses like Germany, Russia, Canada and the US. Historically, you could predict who would compete at the Winter games based on whether their nations were cold and hilly. But in a world where it’s possible to live in Brazil and train in Canada, the Winter Olympics are increasingly featuring athletes from decidedly non-wintry nations… and from cold places that rarely feature in the international spotlight.
The Jamaican bobsled team, famous for crashing in 1988 in Calgary and becoming the subject of a (sappy but charming) Disney movie, “Cool Runnings”, failed to qualify for the Turin games. But Patrick Singleton will be representing Bermuda in the Skeleton competition. He’s one of several one-man teams, including Ethiopia and Kenya’s cross-country skiing teams.
Robel Teklemariam will be representing Ethiopia for the first time in the winter games. He moved to the US with his mother, a diplomat, when he was nine and took up the sport. But getting Ethiopia to send him to the Olympics required the support of Ethiopian sponsors living in Europe as well as Teklemariam’s efforts to set up a national skiing federation in Addis Ababa, which his family helps run. Telkemariam points out that Ethiopia does have mountains that receive snow, but his love for snow sports comes primarily from his time in the US. Former high school and college coaches describe him a serious athlete, ranked as one of the top three skiiers in Colorado when he was a student.
He may want to take some notes from Philip Boit, a Kenyan cross-country skier now competing in his third Winter Olympics. Boit is a talented middle-distance runner, but there are enough talented middle distance runners in Kenya that it’s very difficult to make the team. (Boit’s brother has won a bronze medal in the summer games) – he switched to cross-country skiing in time for the Nagano games in 1998, where he participated with sponsorship from Nike. He finished last in his events in 1998 and 2002, but is undetterred – he currently splits his time between Eldoret, a mountain town north of Nairobi, and Finland, where he trains.
There are competitors this year from Algeria and Senegal as well, though it’s difficult to find out what evens each team is entered in. The only press coverage I’ve been able to find on Senegal’s team focuses on the small size of their contingent (four) and the fact that athletes marched into the stadium in acid-wash jeans.
You don’t have to be a warm-weather nation at the winter Olympics to be obscure. Talking about the Olympics on the Daily Show, Rob Cordurry, filling in for Jon Stewart, declared that Moldova wasn’t a nation, but the name of a European supermodel. Regular readers of this blog know that Moldova is, in fact, an independent nation inhabited by some of the friendliest people in the world, located between Romania and Ukraine. In past years, Moldovans have entered skiing, biathalon and luge events.
And let us not neglect the Mongolians. Our friends from the steppes have participated in the Winter Olympics since 1964 in Innsbruck – Mongolian cross-country skiiers attended that winter olympics unaware that there was a registration procedure required to participate in the games. In an example of Olympic spirit that would be unlikely to be repeated today, they were nevertheless allowed to compete. Mongolians have never won a medal in the winter Olympics (they’ve won 14 in the summer games.) Looking realistically at the challenges Mongolian athletes will face in Torino, competing in highly competitive events (classical cross-country skiing and short-track speed skating), the Mongolian Chief of the State Committee of Physical Culture and Sports wished Mongolia’s skiiers “to make a new national record for Mongolia”. John Crumpacker, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, has already awarded Mongolia the always coveted best hat award:
In the hat category, best of show went to the athletes of Mongolia in their stunning fur-trapper hats with dangling tails. Forget those lame Roots berets the U.S. team wore with much fanfare in Salt Lake City four years ago. The Mongolian mad hatters were clear winners with rich caramel-colored pelts that looked to be made of fox.
The animals in question might be marmots, popular as a source of food and fur in Mongolia, despite the risk of catching bubonic plague from the furry rodents. Not even bubonic plague helps explain why Mongolia ended up marching in to the Buggles’ one hit, “Video Killed the Radio Star”. (It’s okay – the Iranians marched in to “Funky Town”. Which is fine, so long as the Syrians don’t have to march to “Burning Down the House”.)
Will the Mongolians triumph in short-track speedskating? Will Philip Boit use his final appearance to shock the field of Norwegian and Finnish ski champions. Probably not. But the Olympics is always a wonderful reminder of what a full and rich world we live in. And when I finally succeed in launching the Ghanaian curling team, it will be richer still. (Step one – build an ice rink. Step two – import curling stones. Step three – import Canadians to teach the only sport they still rule the world in…)
Update: I’m taking it easy today (recovering from a series of eye surgeries) and watching 52 year old Venezuelan slider Werner Hoeger compete in men single’s luge. He’s in 33rd place after his third of four runs, meaning he’s not going to win a medal. But as he crossed the finish line, I heard someone yell, “Viva Venezuela!” My sentiments exactly.