After the Olympics in late February, FasterSkier published a news blog about an American couple, Gary di Silvestri and Angelica Morrone, that represented the island nation of Dominca as cross-country skiers at the Sochi Winter Games. The post was based on allegations and reports that the couple pulled a fast one in order to get to the Games, and once there, did not compete.
We then reached out to their coach, J.D. Downing, who founded the XC Oregon nordic team in Bend, Ore., and is a well-known figure in the US master’s circuit, for his take. Downing’s frustration with the negative coverage his athletes received was apparent. What follows is an article based mainly on excerpts from his thorough response.
(Note: In the interest of writing the most-straightforward article, only Downing’s statements that pertained to the FasterSkier’s news blog were included in this article. In his original email, Downing addressed the issue of taking advantage of a loophole in the rules. A few more excerpts from Downing’s email that are relevant to the first comment on this article have been added under the heading ‘What Exactly is the Problem Here?’)
“You have two people that have fallen madly in love with cross-country skiing and the combination of their unbridled enthusiasm and personal resources has spread proven positive benefits far and wide in the worldwide XC ski community.” — J.D. Downing, XC Oregon head coach and Dominca Olympic coach
“I first had the pleasure to work with Gary and Angelica at the 2005 Oregon Spring Camp,” J.D. Downing wrote in an email. “Shortly after that camp they became supporters of the XC Oregon non-profit under our Friends of XC Oregon program. Gary and Angelica have been two of our many generous donors over the past eight fiscal years.
“Within the Friends of XC Oregon program, all donors to XC Oregon receive as benefits access to our XC Oregon workouts, camps, and training programs,” he continued. “So in that way I have coached Gary and Angelica for the past eight years. Beginning spring 2013 we mutually increased my time demands beyond the Friends of XC Oregon program to match the pressing requirements for Olympic qualification and the Games itself.”
What distinguishes di Silvestri and Morrone from the other wealthy donors Downing coaches was that they were attempting to qualify for the Sochi Olympics under the flag of the tiny Caribbean nation of Dominica. Forty-eight and 47 years old, respectively, at the time of the Olympics, Morrone and di Silvestri weren’t quite at the level for qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team, or, for that matter, the Italian Olympic team, as Morrone is Italian-born. (Di Silvestri is from Staten Island and the couple lives in Montana.)
There are two separate issues on the table — what anyone chooses to think of Morrone and di Silvestri, and what anyone chooses to think of the rules they followed. Downing wrote that criticism of the rules was being improperly directed at his athletes:
“If it’s a matter of short versus long-term citizenship that bugs people, then feel free to take appropriate steps with your IOC representatives to suggest an international rule change that requires a certain period of time of holding citizenship before you can represent a country at the Olympics.
“If you have a problem with how specific nations legally grant citizenship, take it up with national leaders worldwide for the next Olympics. You know, the people that actually write and enforce laws in various countries.
“If you have a problem with how specific nations set their national Olympic participation criteria, again, please speak with the specific national leaders in question.”
Morrone and di Silvestri qualified according to the “B Standard” — nations that do not have any “A-Standard” athletes can still send one male and one female representative of each sport. However, the B-Standard qualification must still be met, which is a maximum of 300 International Ski Federation (FIS) points in order to enter the mid-distance classical races. Dominica had never previously fielded a team at the Winter Olympics, and their B-Standard cross-country ski spots were open.
“Now there’s been plenty of commentary and opinion about the level of skiing required to meet the Olympic B standard,” Downing continued. “I am perfectly OK with that conversation and if anyone is really bent out of shape about that standard then I’d encourage writing to your FIS and IOC representatives to voice your views. For example, you can argue for lowering the Olympic B standard to an average of 250 or even 200 FIS points. If a tougher ‘standard’ of the Games is your mission, those official entities are the right parties to lobby.
“But please understand just who you impact versus how little you accomplish by lowering the 300 FIS point average. The list of nationalities eliminated largely would be smaller, poorer, and/or snow-challenged. [The resulting pool of athletes will closely resemble] a typical World Cup race. So you’ll successfully make the Winter Olympics far less inclusive while changing nothing in terms of the overall pros and cons of the Olympic movement.”
How It Really Went in Sochi
The Deadspin article quoted in the article by FasterSkier had a great deal of personal criticism for the couple. Downing’s irritation with the negative coverage was apparent, beginning with the coverage of their Olympic experience:
“[That their Olympic experience was an] un-mitigated disaster is completely true. I take issue with how this Olympic experience was presented. Deadspin clearly painted the health of the athletes with a wide brush of suspicion, derision, mocking, and doubt. FasterSkier itself doesn’t exactly leave readers with an accurate portrayal by claiming Angelica just had a ‘broken nose’ and the sarcasm of Gary ‘didn’t get the memo’ on potentially tainted water.”
Downing described their untimely predicaments:
“On Saturday, February 8 Gary woke up with severe abdominal cramps so severe he could not walk nor even stand for more than a few seconds. [...] Ultimately he was diagnosed [...] as having a serious bacterial gastroenteritis infection. Our best guess was the water in our lodging as the culprit. The symptoms came and went for over a week. In the best of times he could ski, but felt very weak. At the worst, he was back to the day one misery and barely able to walk or stand.
“That very same morning of Saturday, February 8, Angelica and I were skiing on the race courses before the women’s skiathlon and she had a high speed crash into the fence on the exact same downhill corner of the ‘Red’ course that caused so many problems for many athletes in the early portion of the Games. In fact, the exact location of her crash was precisely where Anders Gloeersen hit the bottom of the same fence in the men’s sprint final and where Marcus Hellner and Sergey Ustiugov collided in the same race.
“Although the fence you could see on TV footage was padded, the padding ended just shy of the top metal cross bar (it’s a permanent fence). In her crash, Angelica hit her face right on that exposed cross bar which resulted in a heavy craniofacial injury with multiple fragmental open fractures. Most serious initially was the penetrated open crania-cerebral injury where surgeons were worried that bone fragments might enter her brain. She was transported by ambulance [and] quickly admitted to the Intensive Care Unit, and subsequently underwent four surgeries between the evening of February 8 and lasting until February 24.”
“The medical record regarding this crash provided by the hospital is comprehensive and without dispute. Yet the Deadspin writer actually goes out out of his way to characterize Angelica’s injuries as trivial and Gary’s infection as imagined — and in a bizarre twist insinuates they made it all up for some unspecified reason. Thus he was such a great ‘reporter’ that he supposedly uncovers pointless dirt dating back 30 years ago [including tax-evasion accusations in the Deadspin article], but he couldn’t be bothered to actually get an accurate account of one of the worst injuries to take place at the 2014 Winter Olympics? Even the accounts of Angelica having a ‘broken nose’ are horrifically incomplete in painting the true picture here. [...] If you have just a broken nose, it’s painful, but rarely a serious medical emergency. Angelica’s injuries were Intensive Care Unit for the better part of a week serious. Four surgeries serious. In the hospital almost the entire Winter Olympics serious. But apparently not serious enough for accurate reporting. As I’ve already pointed out, the writer never bothered fact checking the medical realities drawing his credibility in all regards into total question.”
And as for di Silvestre’s illness?
“For Gary, his Olympic routine consisted of daily trips to the hospital to be with Angelica and dealing with the ups/downs of his bacterial infection. The morning of the men’s 15k (Friday, February 14) the abdominal cramps brought on by his infection returned with a vengeance. Even after the Endurance Village clinic treated him with every cramp-relieving medicine at their disposal, he was barely able to walk from the village shuttle to our wax cabin. [...] it was literally everything Gary could do to make it around the stadium in a vain hope that Angelica could at least see him start (from her hospital bed). [The assertion that he made it] 300 meters is about right and yes, he collapsed off the track (so as not to impede other skiers in any way) before I could run around the stadium to assist him off the field of play.”
“To top off Gary’s erstwhile Olympic start, his race skis were stolen that afternoon from a credential-only ‘secure area,’ ” Downing added.
“Accountability in any writing matters. The original Deadspin account openly challenges Angelica was ever severely hurt or that Gary was ever seriously ill. Right there I don’t need any more proof that the writer in question wasn’t interested in honest and factual reporting. I know what happened to these people because I was there every second. The writer didn’t ask me. He didn’t ask the Dominica National Olympic Committee. He didn’t ask the IOC. The medical issues that confronted both Angelica and Gary were not insignificant sidebars. Any writer and any resource that doesn’t can’t get very basic medical facts straight simply cannot be trusted with anything that was alleged.”
‘What Exactly is the Problem Here?’
“It is a fact that Gary and Angelica were hardly the only athletes in Sochi with multiple past or present passports in their name. Multiple examples exist in both XC and biathlon. In several cases the athletes very openly switched national affiliation purely for athletic reasons. In many cases the athletic reasons involved a measure of direct financial gain to the athlete which is most certainly NOT the case for Gary or Angelica.
“I’m fascinated the vitriol leveled at Gary and Angelica that conveniently ignores the situations where many other athletes (including multiple medalists) gained citizenship for various nations with the clear and often admitted motive of, ‘I’ll get better support or simply have access to the Olympics if I switch to such-and-such country’. I know of no example where any athlete in these many other situations was then subject to the character assassination that Gary and Angelica have been through.
“Try as anyone might, no valid argument can be made that Gary or Angelica bumped someone else out of the Olympics. There was never going to be a Dominica Winter Olympic Team at all if they didn’t make it. They didn’t take a dime from the Dominica NOC. They covered every Olympic and National Ski Federation expense and would have happily covered more if ever required by FIS, the IOC, or Sochi organizers. The IOC and the Sochi O.C. were openly delighted they were there representing Dominica. So please tell me — what exactly is the problem here?
Throughout Downing’s email he paints di Silvestre and Morrone as kind, generous, and hard-working.
“Both Gary and Angelica would have to be among the most impressive examples I’ve ever come across of near-total devotion to a sport. Any age. Any ability. Their work ethic is literally off the charts. More often than not I needed to warn them about working too hard or too much, which is often the case with the most motivated skiers of any age.
“Over eight years I honestly cannot think of anyone that got to know Gary and Angelica that has not expressed enjoying the positive energy that comes with being around them. But I can document a very long list of clubs, athletes, events, associations, fundraising campaigns, ski retailers, ski industry companies, websites (yes, including FasterSkier) that have all benefited from contributions, expenditures, participation, etc. by Gary and Angelica’s love of cross-country skiing.
“XC Oregon can document an extensive list of athletes, ski programs, and other worthwhile causes that our program has impacted and supported over the past eight years around the XC world. These positive efforts would not have been possible without the support of donors such as Gary and Angelica.
“In sum you have two people that have fallen madly in love with cross-country skiing and the combination of their unbridled enthusiasm and personal resources has spread proven positive benefits far and wide in the worldwide XC ski community.”