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.”
Adam Lamhamedi, 18, grew up in Quebec City, Canada, the son of a Canadian mother and Moroccan father. He’s always loved ski racing, but he also loves his Moroccan heritage. He has a home there and spends many summers there, but admits he’s more a cold-weather guy.
It was a relative who inquired about the possibility of him skiing under the Moroccan flag after he mentioned it was his dream on a ski camp questionnaire.
“I didn’t know it was possible,” he said after finishing 47th in Wednesday’s GS with a time of 2:59.23 – about 14 seconds slower than GS winner Ted Ligety of Park City. “It’s such an honor to be able to represent Morocco here and compete with the best.” He said there are a lot of misconceptions about those who compete from small, often warm-weather countries.
“The general thinking about it is that, ‘Oh, it’s a small country, it’s easy to enter,’ ” he said. “That’s not true. We have to meet standards of the FIS.”
Both men were flag bearers for their countries, Lamhamedi was one of three athletes, including his younger brother, and Steyn the only athlete from his country.
It didn’t matter that the pool to choose from was limited. Representing their countries in the opening ceremony was deeply moving.
“It was one of the best moment in my life,” said Lamhamedi, who was honored by the king of Morocco after winning a Youth Winter Olympic championship. “You really felt like you represent your country. You have it in your hand. It’s such an honor.”
All of those who hail from countries that most don’t even know are participating in the Winter Olympics appreciated the warm welcome the mostly Russian crowd gave them as they crossed the finish line.
“It’s been amazing,” said Steyn, who finished two runs in 57th place in 3:06.55. “I came down and even though my legs felt like concrete, I could still hear the crowd cheering for me. It was great to feel all the support.”