How's the snow? At Sochi Olympics, record number of tropical countries compete. (+video)
Fifteen warm weather countries – 12 of which are tropical – will compete in the Winter Olympics.
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic
Training for the Winter Olympics on Grand Cayman Island isn’t easy. The highest point is roughly 60 feet above sea level and daytime temperatures hover around 80 degrees.
Despite the incongruity of competing in a major alpine skiing event at the sport's highest level and being brought up on an island renowned for its tropical underwater seascapes, the 26-year-old is Olympics-bound thanks to family travel and a French ski camp.
The Winter Games are still dominated by countries with cold climates and elaborate training programs, such as the United States, which this year is sending a record 230 athletes, followed by Russia (225), and Canada (221). Mr. Travers became the first Winter Olympian from the Cayman Islands when he qualified for the 2010 Vancouver games.
But from the Cayman Islands to Togo, in West Africa, warm weather countries are showing up more and more on Winter Olympic Games schedules. This year, 15 such countries, including a record 12 tropical countries – up from seven in 2010 – will have competitors in Sochi. Observers attribute the trend to the combination of a more globalized world in which athletes with dual citizenship compete for countries to which they only have loose ties, and to an active push by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) to reach out to countries with little or no connection to winter sports, in part to grow its global audience and expand viewership.
“For some of these smaller nations that may struggle to enter the Summer Olympics, there’s more opportunity in winter sports,” says Janice Forsyth, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University in Ontario. “There is an incentive for these countries to get their name on the world stage to make their presence known.”
For the IOC, more countries competing – 88 are entering the Sochi Games, up from 82 in 2010 – means more broadcasting rights and more revenue.
“Like any business, the IOC’s goal is to expand its market into areas that have been untapped,” Ms. Forsyth says.
How's the snow?
Mexico became the first warm weather country to compete in the Winter Games when it entered a bobsleigh team in 1928. This year, nine Latin American and Caribbean countries are competing. Brazil is sending 13 athletes; Jamaica’s legendary bobsleigh team is back; and three Peruvians are competing, including a 42-year-old surfer-turned-skier who works as a Microsoft consultant in Seattle.
No athlete hailing from a tropical nation has ever won a medal, though their participation still turns heads.
“My favorite question is when people ask how the snow is in the BVI, and [they] are completely serious,” says Peter Adam Crook, a young half-pipe skier from the British Virgin Islands, the country’s first Winter Olympian in 30 years.
“I think it's an amazing opportunity and I hope to bring nothing but good things back from the Olympics while representing the BVI.”
While some geographical confusion still exists, the famed Jamaican bobsleigh team in 1988 broke down much of the skepticism that existed about Winter Olympians hailing from tropical climates.
“It was one of those things that totally took people by surprise. Jaws kind of dropped wide open,” says Devon Harris, a member of the first team, which hastily came together for those Games and wound up competing in two others. “None of us had even seen a bobsleigh six months before the Olympics were due to start.”
The team never medaled, but its inspiring story made it to the big screen in the 1993 Disney film “Cool Runnings.”
“When we got there all of us on that team realized what it meant to follow your dreams,” says Mr. Harris, now a New York-based speaker and author of books for children. “Olympic athletes represent dreams of hundreds of thousands of people from every corner of the world. The fact that I’m from Jamaica, or wherever, doesn’t stop me from dreaming.”
After failing to reach the previous two Games, Jamaican bobsledders are back this year. But after qualifying for Sochi, they faced a financial hurdle common in countries where there are limited resources available for athletes. Through social media and a fundraising campaign, the team raised $120,000 in a few days, enough to make the trip. The two-man team is led by Winston Watts, who was born in Jamaica but naturalized to the US, and who now lives in Wyoming, not far from where the US team trains.
While Mr. Watts’s ties to his home country are strong, in many cases athletes with dual or triple citizenships can compete for countries where they have only loose – or, in some cases, newfound – ties. Jasmine Campbell, for example, will represent the US Virgin Islands, from which her family moved when she was a child. Then there's Gary di Silvestri: The New York-born cross-country skier and his wife will compete in the games for Dominica. They first went to the island seven years ago and were given citizenship due to their philanthropic activities.
The can-do spirit
But if athletes can overcome nationality requirements, they still have to navigate the tricky, and expensive, question of where to train.
For Travers, the skier from Grand Cayman Island, it was a ski camp in France that turned him toward competitive downhill.
“I only managed to ski about two weeks a year while I was in high school, which did not allow me to be very competitive,” he says. “But once I graduated ... I was able to spend some more time on the slopes.”
Travers finished 69th in the grand slalom in Vancouver and says his goal is to “ski the cleanest run I can.”
Whether he reaches the medal podium or not, he’s not likely to be the last Cayman Islands skier to compete in a Winter Olympics. His younger brother recently received a letter from the International Ski Federation ranking him No. 1 in the world for his age group.
“Caymanians, Caribbean citizens, and the world can do anything we want to when we set our minds to it,” he says.