Skiers from small nations revel in warm reception, opportunity to bring attention to winter sports and their countries

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 19 2014 4:30 p.m. MST

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The cheers from the crowd are so loud and proud, it feels like something special just happened.

And for the athletes who crossed the finish line of the Olympic GS course in the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center long after the contenders finished, it actually had.

From countries like Israel, Iran, India, Peru, Estonia, Morocco and Zimbabwe, they come to the Winter Olympics to represent countries that don’t necessarily even understand winter sports — let alone embrace them.

Oftentimes they’re athletes with dual citizenship — one parent from a country that loves and reveres ski racing marries another from a country that barely knows what alpine sports are.

Luke Steyn is the first and only Winter Olympian from Zimbabwe. He’s a fifth-generation Zimbabwean who grew up in Switzerland and France.

“It feels great to be able to fly the flag where it hasn’t necessarily been flown before,” said the 20-year-old. “Even though Zimbabwe isn’t used to winter sports, I don’t think it matters to them. Just to have a Zimbabwean competing on the world stage, they’re really proud of me, so that’s really an achievement.”

The giant slalom and slalom are the most democratic of winter sports. On Wednesday, 109 skiers started with 72 of them earning the required two run times. When the sport holds World Championships, all that is required is that a country’s governing body certify a skier. Sometimes a country doesn’t even have a governing body.

That means hundreds of skiers compete, forcing officials to have qualifying rounds that cull the pool of skiers to a manageable size.

The skiers travel to FIS events earning points to qualify for the games, and they do so, in most cases, knowing they won’t win a single race.

So why make the sacrifices, why commit to the training, when it’s more than likely they won’t even finish in the top 30? Some of those who finished Wednesday’s Olympic GS said they do so to bring attention to their sport and honor to their country.

And of course, most of them say they believe skiing with the best will help them improve their own craft. Steyn said skiing is not something most of the country knows much about. Still, they have embraced his efforts in the name of their shared homeland.

“The response has been incredible,” he said.

Steyn now calls London home, although he attends school at the University of Colorado so he can “ski and study.”

He hopes to inspire his warm-weather countrymen to consider winter sports — even if it means living elsewhere to train.

“There are a lot of barriers there for winter sports, but it would be nice to see some other guys come out,” he said. ‘As we’ve seen so far, a lot of the bobsled guys, for example, they’re just ex-sprinters.”

Those who come from small delegations find themselves looking out for one another. One of Steyn’s friends is Logan High graduate and Ireland flag bearer Connor Lyne. The 21-year-old ski racer crashed on his first run after having only limited training because of a shoulder injury.

“I think it’s just meeting a whole lot of different people,” Steyn said of his favorite Olympic moment. “I can’t put it down to one thing. I’ve just met so many cool people and a lot of them are from smaller nations like me trying to do the same thing here. … They all know what you’ve been through and how hard it is to get here.”

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