Media attention for the Olympics is usually focused on high profile teams and local favorites. Everyone loves to read about the athletes who will represent their country or the foreign athletes from well-known ski nations, but in the cross-country skiing world there is another group heading to Vancouver that deserves some attention. Nordic skiing attracts a significant number of athletes from countries that FIS designates as “developing nations,” places where skiing is a very small or even nonexistent sport. This article will explore the stories of a few skiers from developing nations and what it takes for them to qualify for the Vancouver Olympics.
Qualifying for the Olympics
FIS places developing ski nations under the “B-Standard” for Olympic qualification. Skiers attempting to qualify for the Olympics under these standards must have under 300 sprint or distance FIS points and must have participated in the previous year’s World Championships. The 5/10 km Individual Classic Qualification race at the 2009 Liberec Worlds was filled with skiers from lesser-known countries looking to lower their points and compete at Worlds. Israel, Ireland, Iran, Bermuda, Brazil, and Kenya were just a few of the developing nations represented in this race.
Developing nations are given spots for one male and one female skier, and each athlete is allowed one race start. The slot restriction means that nations such as Ireland, which currently has two athletes that have met the FIS qualifying standards, must develop their own procedures to determine who will go. The Snow Sports Federation of Ireland and Irish Olympic Council will be deciding in the coming weeks whether Paul Griffin or Peter-James Barron will be representing their country. In this year’s Olympics developing nations skiers will be allowed to race in either the classic sprint or the 10/15 km interval start skate depending on whether the athlete has under 300 points in sprint or distance. Some athletes, like Jaqueline Mourão from Brazil, have met the criteria for both sprint and distance but they still must choose only one race.
Even if a skier successfully meets the FIS qualifying standards, the final decision on attending the Olympics rests with officials in the skier’s home country. It is not uncommon in skiing, as well as other sports, for an athlete to qualify for the Olympics by international standards only to be told his or her bid will not be supported at home. The nation’s Olympic Committee may decide the skier will not be able to represent their country well enough, or finances may be an issue. In the case of New Zealand, which is a FIS designated developing nation, the national federation chose to follow the A-Standards for qualification. This means that after successfully getting his FIS points under the A-Standard magic number of 100, former Dartmouth skier Ben Koons will be representing New Zealand at this year’s Olympics.
Training Opportunities at Home…but Mostly Abroad
Understandably, skiers from places without snow usually pick up the sport after moving to another country or being introduced to it while traveling. Ireland’s Paul Griffin first tried Nordic skiing while at a training camp for rowing near St. Moritz, Switzerland. Tucker Murphy, who will represent Bermuda in the Olympics, first learned to ski at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire and later began his racing career at Dartmouth College. Koons was introduced to skiing while growing up in New Zealand, but he didn’t start racing competitively until attending high school in Maine. Brazil’s Mourão, who now lives and trains with her husband in Québec, Canada had never even seen snow until she was 27 years old!
For most of these skiers, except for those that have southern hemisphere winters, training in their home country means dry land: running, roller skiing, strength and other cross-training sports. I managed to find one photo of Griffin on snow at the MacGillcuddy Reeks in Ireland but he assures me that he had simply posed for the photo on an unusually snowy day in the mountains; Ireland does not have any opportunities for Nordic skiing.
Brazil has no snow at all, but Jaque Mourão gets creative when returning home and sometimes trains by sand skiing. A post on this site a few weeks ago showed her cruising around the beaches and dunes of Brazil. Though she makes it look easy in the video, Mourão asserts that it is extremely hard work; “It is like skiing at minus 30 or 40 degrees Celsius, slow and you have to push hard. But at this specific place the sand is very thin and it is possible to do very good quality classic training.” Mourão has used sand skiing as a way to introduce children to the sport in the hopes of sparking their interest. We have probably all seen the classic photo of Bill Koch sand skiing in Hawaii, but apparently the quality of the experience completely depends on the sand type. Tucker Murphy has attempted it on the beaches of Bermuda but the sand there is made of broken up coral, making for very difficult skiing.
Previous Olympic Experience
A number of small nations skiers have already made appearances at the summer Olympics. Paul Griffin is a former Irish national team rower and finished 6th in Athens and 10th in Beijing in the lightweight four. After what he felt was a disappointing finish in 2008, Griffin decided to tackle skiing with the help of an Olympic Solidarity Scholarship through the Irish Olympic Council. Now the sport that was originally just cross-training for rowing is his primary focus. If Griffin is chosen to represent Ireland in Vancouver, he would be only the third Irish athlete, and the first endurance athlete, to compete in both the Summer and Winter Games.
Jaque Mourão also competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics during her long and successful mountain biking career. In 2003 she was ranked top-10 in the world and was PanAm champion in 2008. However after Beijing, Mourão felt she had accomplished all she wanted to in mountain biking and decided to completely dedicate herself to skiing. Mourão has already skied in the Torino Olympics and is now looking forward to improving on her results in Vancouver. She seems well on her way to meeting that goal; after scoring under 120 FIS points last March she has been able to race in a number of World Cups this season.
Philip Boit from Kenya is perhaps one of the best known small nations skiers. A former middle-distance runner, Boit’s introduction to skiing was sponsored by Nike. He has already competed in the Nagano, Salt Lake, and Torino Olympics.
Shared Difficulties, Common Goals
Among the skiers I talked to, finances and logistics were by far the most difficult aspects of being an athlete from a developing nation. Finding financial support at home, where most people have little knowledge about or interest in skiing, can be an incredible challenge. Most of these athletes also travel to races alone, meaning they become their own travel agents, coaches, and wax techs. Pride in representing their country, a pure love for skiing, and appreciation for the experience were named as the motivating factors to pursue the Olympics despite the difficulties. The challenges have helped bring these skiers together into a tight-knit group. Everyone tries to help each other out while on the road racing, and for Tucker Murphy, this community feeling fostered among small nations skiers is “part of the appeal.” In preparing this article, I was most impressed by the obvious camaraderie among these skiers. Be sure to watch for them in Vancouver!