Warm-weather nations look far and wide to find their Olympic athletes

02/11/2014 1:07 PM

02/11/2014 1:41 PM

The children of Togo’s diaspora can be found in the mountains of Russia — skiing.

Cross-country skier Mathilde Amivi Petitjean and alpine skier Alessia Afi Dipol are members of the sweltering West African nation’s first Winter Olympics team, even though their feet have barely touched Togolese soil.

Petitjean, 19, has a Togolese mother, grew up in the French Alps, skied for France, and was recruited by Team Togo via Facebook. Dipol, 18, is an Italian who used to ski for India. But to Togo Olympic Committee Vice President Kelani Bayor, these athletes bleed Togolese yellow, red and green.

“These are true blue Togolese,” Kelani insisted in French. “They don’t live in Togo but they are part of the diaspora.”

Togo’s of-the-country-but-not-necessarily-from-it Olympic team is one of seven mostly warm-climate nations in Sochi participating in the Winter Games for the first time.

One- and two-person teams from Dominica, East Timor, Malta, Paraguay, Tonga and Zimbabwe marched with Togo in the parade of nations at the Sochi Games’ opening ceremony on Friday.

“If I was told I would one day compete at the Olympic Games, I would never have believed it would be in the colors of Togo,” Petitjean, who was a French junior-level skier, told the International Olympic Committee last December.

But because of a lack of mountains, snow, ice facilities or knowledge of winter sports, some of these Olympic newbies have stretched the limits of passport and citizenship requirements to field teams.

The Dominica husband and wife cross-country ski team, for example, hails from Staten Island, N.Y., not the Caribbean island the couple are representing in Sochi. Gary and Angelica di Silvestri, accomplished skiers in their 40s, performed philanthropic work in the tiny Caribbean nation and were granted citizenship in return.

Some of the new Olympians were born in the country they represent, but they didn’t stay there long. Paraguayan slopestyle skier Julia Marino was born in Paraguay, adopted by an American family and moved to the United States before she was less than a year old.

The Boulder, Colo., resident, who skied for the United States until last year, has visited Paraguay just once.

“I’m going to spend a bit more time down there,” she said Tuesday. “They have a great national Olympic Committee and I can learn more about my country.”

Zimbabwe alpine skier Luke Henri Steyn was born in Harare but his family moved to Switzerland, where he started skiing at age 2. He was studying at the University of Colorado in Boulder before taking a year off to focus on the Sochi Games.

The Winter Olympic rookie nations aren’t the only ones with nation-hopping athletes. Prized South Korean speed skater Ahn Hyun-soo is competing in Sochi for Russia under the name Viktor Ahn after ditching his motherland for not sending him to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

Foreign Policy magazine’s website recently called these Olympians “carpetbaggers” with only “tenuous ties to their ostensible motherlands,” who are reminders that, “even as the Games embrace the rhetoric of national pride, opportunism knows no borders.”

Olympic citizenship requirements are pliable enough, and some countries are hungry enough for Olympic attention and glory, that changing their passport is becoming the new normal among athletes.

“And countries will facilitate the growth of this pattern, too, in order to have representatives on the team so as to make their presence felt on the world stage,” said Janice Forsythe, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. “In Canada, we move elite athletes to the front of the immigration line, speeding up their immigration papers in time for the Olympics.”

Togo discovered Petitjean online instead of in the immigration line. The nation’s fledgling sliding sports committee contacted her after she posted a positive comment about Gervacio Madja, a Togolese-born, Munich-raised men’s cross-country skier.

“We first got in touch with her in May 2013,” Hyacinthe Edorh, head of Togolese mission at the Sochi Games, said of Petitjean. “With Mathilde we are certain she will surprise everyone because she is only 19 years old and she is capable of competing for the next 10 to 15 years.”

Togo’s presence at the Winter Games is part of an ambitious plan to make the country, where the temperature ranges from 72 to 95 degrees, a warm-weather winter sport powerhouse.

“We would like to be present in all competitions in the Winter Games and want to carry out our project all over Africa,” Hyacinthe said.

But for now, Team Togo has enough work to do in its own country.

“Some people in Togo don’t know what slalom is,” Kelani said. “I will explain to them.”

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