YANQING, China — One after the other they zigzagged down the mountain, close to the top of a line of practically 90 racers in a snowy big slalom, trying extra like ski hobbyists on a weekend jaunt than world-class rivals.
Lots of the skiers have been first-time Olympians, introduced collectively by one very pertinent factor they’ve in frequent: a scarcity of snow within the international locations they’re representing in Beijing, together with Jamaica, Ghana, India, East Timor and Morocco.
“I all the time say, ‘There’s a first league, and there’s a second league. We’re, for positive, the second league,” stated Carlos Maeder, 43, who’s representing Ghana and is the oldest skier at this yr’s Video games. “Possibly even the third league,” he added, chuckling.
Mr. Maeder, who’s ranked 2,443rd on the planet in big slalom, was in a position to make it to the Olympics partly due to a change in qualifying standards aimed toward producing a extra various subject of rivals.
Keenly conscious that snowboarding has been dominated by athletes from richer, colder international locations, the Worldwide Olympic Committee and snowboarding’s world governing physique have tried to make the game extra inclusive by means of a quota system that lowers the brink of qualification.
However that call has put a bitter edge on what was presupposed to be a well-intentioned effort at variety. It has garnered rising scrutiny about whether or not the skiers tried to recreation a system constructed to offer them the absolute best likelihood of qualifying and has raised questions on whether or not the Olympics will be each an elite competitors and an inclusive, international sports activities pageant.
Critics have accused the skiers of manipulating three races that they organized and took part in throughout the last weeks of the Olympic qualification interval. The Worldwide Ski Federation stated that it was reviewing these races, held in December and January, and that the outcomes may result in penalties for anybody who had damaged its guidelines.
It declined to specify which races it was analyzing, although there have been not more than 4 held throughout that interval. It additionally requested the I.O.C. to regulate its quota system to incorporate extra spots for certified aggressive skiers. This yr, Austria acquired two further spots, whereas Germany and France every acquired one.
“I used to be by no means going to be aggressive,” stated Benjamin Alexander, a 38-year-old Jamaican skier and former D.J. He completed final within the big slalom in a race on Sunday. “The individuals I used to be competing towards began snowboarding at 2 and had their first race coaching at 4 or 5,” he stated.
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Mr. Alexander began snowboarding when he was 32.
The dust-up in Beijing can hint its roots to after the 2018 Winter Olympics, when the I.O.C. lower the variety of Alpine skiers allowed to take part within the Video games to 306 from 320. To make sure gender fairness, it stated every nation may ship not more than 11 males or 11 girls. These limits, mixed with the looser qualifying requirements, have prompted some conventional winter sports activities powerhouses, similar to Austria, to complain.
Though the sector has change into extra various — a core objective of the I.O.C. — many elite skiers who depend on the game for a livelihood now say they’re being disregarded. That may doubtlessly have an effect on their sponsorships, the principle supply of earnings for any prime skilled skier.
However some say that loss is a achieve for international locations like Haiti and Saudi Arabia. Each nations made their Winter Video games debuts in Beijing, fielding Alpine skiers. The Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand additionally despatched groups of skiers to the Olympics.
With a view to get right here, the so-called exotics, as a number of of those skiers name themselves, obtained sufficient qualifying factors from lower-tier races. To take action, among the skiers organized their very own races, which assured much less competitors.
These races, held in locations like Liechtenstein, Montenegro and Dubai, drew the eye of Federiga Bindi, a professor of political science on the College of Rome Tor Vergata and the director of a ski academy. Final month, she wrote an essay for Ski Racing Media declaring that the Liechtenstein race had solely 10 rivals.
A separate report that was filed to the Worldwide Ski Federation and reviewed by The New York Instances advised that the races have been mounted, and that skiers with a historical past of excessive efficiency had “considerably underperformed” to permit athletes from small nations to earn the mandatory qualifying factors to go to the Olympics.
A kind of elite athletes, in accordance with the report, was Cristian Javier Simari Birkner, a four-time Olympian from Argentina.
When reached by phone, Mr. Simari Birkner, who raced in Montenegro and Liechtenstein, stated: “For positive, I didn’t carry out 110 p.c. However that doesn’t imply I slowed down on function or something like that.” He stated that his journey and lodging prices have been paid for by the race organizers, as within the World Cup and Europe races, however that he was not paid for his participation.
Mr. Simari Birkner blamed the pushback on the system that had been put in place. “The Olympic Committee and the Worldwide Ski Federation — they need to work out in the event that they wish to have a global occasion, with 80, 90 or 120 international locations, or in the event that they wish to get an occasion the place they get six international locations to race and it’s completed,” he stated.
The Worldwide Ski Federation’s investigation into these races was first reported by The Washington Post. For the athletes from nations with little snow, the fallout on the Video games has been dispiriting.
“There may be loads of damaging press on the market, and what that tells us is there are loads of international locations that don’t need participation from different nations at this second,” stated Mr. Alexander, who made historical past on Sunday as the primary Alpine skier representing Jamaica on the Olympics.
He denied that the qualifying races, a number of of which he helped arrange, have been manipulated. “If the Olympics is simply concerning the 10 international locations who suck up all of the medals, then the opposite 190 international locations get bored, and that’s dangerous for all of us,” he stated.
The backlash has forged a cloud over what was presupposed to be a feel-good story.
In August 2020, Yohan Goutt Goncalves, a skier from East Timor, contacted Mr. Alexander on Instagram after studying a profile about him. “Simply learn your story, man,” Mr. Goutt Goncalves wrote. “Good luck. Let’s carry small nations to the Olympics.”
Mr. Goutt Goncalves, a three-time Olympian, created a WhatsApp group final yr, pulling collectively all of the skiers he had met representing the tropics. He cheekily named it “Athletes from Unique Nations.”
When Mr. Goutt Goncalves competed on the 2014 Winter Olympics, it was the primary time that East Timor, one of many world’s poorest international locations, had fielded an athlete for the Video games. Mr. Goutt Goncalves stated he selected to signify the Southeast Asian nation as a result of he needed to lift the profile of the nation the place his mom was born.
Many of the athletes within the WhatsApp group come from equally small nations. They pay for their very own journey, splitting the prices amongst each other.
“When you’ve got cash, you possibly can have employees and go coaching all over the place on the planet,” stated Bogdan Gligor, who coaches Mr. Goutt Goncalves. He spent a current Tuesday morning lugging the baggage of three skiers up the mountains in Yanqing, the place Alpine sports activities are being held.
Many within the group say the chances have lengthy been stacked towards them. Practically all these skiers have full-time jobs. Mr. Maeder, the skier from Ghana, stated he took 4 or 5 years to pursue his dream of reaching the Olympics and not using a coach or the help of a nationwide federation.
“It means lots to lift the flag for Ghana as a winter sport nation,” he stated. He and the others know they haven’t any likelihood of successful a medal, however to them, it doesn’t matter.
Yassine Aouich, a skier from Morocco who made his Olympic debut on Sunday, stated he had skied for less than about two weeks final yr as a result of the coronavirus pandemic prevented him from going to France, the place he normally trains.
“, the qualification for us is — it’s just like the gold medal,” he stated.