YANQING, China – One by one, they zigzagged down the mountain, near the end of a line of nearly 90 racers in a snowy giant slalom, looking more like ski hobbyists on a weekend jaunt than world-class competitors.
Many of the skiers were first-time Olympians, brought together by one very pertinent thing they have in common: a shortage of snow in the countries they are representing in Beijing, including Jamaica, Ghana, India, East Timor and Morocco.
“I always say, ‘There is a first league, and there is a second league. We are, for sure, the second league,” said Carlos Maeder, 43, who is representing Ghana and is the oldest skier at this year’s Games. “Maybe even the third league,” he added, chuckling.
Maeder, who is ranked 2,443rd in the world in giant slalom, was able to make it to the Olympics in part because of a change in qualifying criteria aimed at producing a more diverse field of competitors.
Keenly aware that skiing has been dominated by athletes from richer, colder countries, the International Olympic Committee and skiing’s world governing body have tried to make the sport more inclusive through a quota system that lowers the threshold of qualification.
But that decision has put a bitter edge on what was supposed to be a well-intentioned effort at diversity. It has garnered growing scrutiny about whether the skiers tried to game a system constructed to give them the best possible chance of qualifying and has raised questions about whether the Olympics can be both an elite competition and an inclusive, global sports festival.
Critics have accused the skiers of manipulating three races that they organized and participated in during the final weeks of the Olympic qualification period. The International Ski Federation said it was reviewing those races, held in December and January, and that the results could lead to penalties for anyone who had broken its rules.
It declined to specify which races it was examining, although there were no more than four held during that period. It also asked the IOC to adjust its quota system to include more spots for qualified competitive skiers. This year, Austria received two additional spots, while Germany and France each received one.
“I was never going to be competitive,” said Benjamin Alexander, a 38-year-old Jamaican skier and former DJ. He finished last in the giant slalom in a race Sunday. “The people I was competing against started skiing at 2 and had their first race training at 4 or 5,” he said.
Alexander started skiing when he was 32.
The dust-up in Beijing can trace its roots to after the 2018 Winter Olympics, when the IOC cut the number of Alpine skiers allowed to participate in the Games to 306 from 320. To ensure gender equity, it said each country could send no more than 11 men or 11 women. Those limits, combined with the looser qualifying standards, have prompted some traditional winter sports powerhouses, such as Austria, to complain.
Even though the field has become more diverse – a core goal of the IOC – many elite skiers who rely on the sport for a livelihood now say they are being left out. That can potentially affect their sponsorships, the main source of income for any top professional skier.
But some say that loss is a gain for countries like Haiti and Saudi Arabia. Both nations made their Winter Games debuts in Beijing, fielding Alpine skiers. The Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand also sent teams of skiers to the Olympics.
In order to get here, the so-called exotics, as several of these skiers call themselves, obtained enough qualifying points from lower-tier races. To do so, some of the skiers organized their own races, which guaranteed less competition.
Those races, held in places like Liechtenstein, Montenegro and Dubai, drew the attention of Federiga Bindi, a professor of political science at the University of Rome Tor Vergata and the director of a ski academy. Last month, she wrote an essay for Ski Racing Media pointing out that the Liechtenstein race had only 10 competitors.
A separate report that was filed to the International Ski Federation and reviewed by The New York Times suggested that the races were fixed and that skiers with a history of high performance had “significantly underperformed” to allow athletes from small nations to earn the necessary qualifying points to go to the Olympics.
One of those elite athletes, according to the report, was Cristian Javier Simari Birkner, a four-time Olympian from Argentina.
Reached by telephone, Simari Birkner, who raced in Montenegro and Liechtenstein, said, “For sure, I did not perform 110%. But that doesn’t mean I slowed down on purpose or anything like that.” He said that his travel and lodging costs were paid for by the race organizers, as in the World Cup and Europe races, but that he was not paid for his participation.
Simari Birkner blamed the pushback on the system that had been put in place. “The Olympic Committee and the International Ski Federation – they should figure out if they want to have an international event, with 80, 90 or 120 countries, or if they want to get an event where they get six countries to race and it’s finished,” he said.
The International Ski Federation’s investigation into these races was first reported by The Washington Post. For the athletes from nations with little snow, the fallout at the Games has been dispiriting.
“There is a lot of negative press out there, and what that tells us is there are a lot of countries that don’t want participation from other nations at this moment,” said Alexander, who made history Sunday as the first Alpine skier representing Jamaica at the Olympics.
He denied that the qualifying races, several of which he helped organize, were manipulated. “If the Olympics is just about the 10 countries who suck up all the medals, then the other 190 countries get bored, and that is bad for all of us,” he said.
The backlash has cast a cloud over what was supposed to be a feel-good story.
In August 2020, Yohan Goutt Goncalves, a skier from East Timor, contacted Alexander on Instagram after reading a profile about him. “Just read your story, man,” Goutt Goncalves wrote. “Good luck. Let’s bring small nations to the Olympics.”
Goutt Goncalves, a three-time Olympian, created a WhatsApp group last year, pulling together all the skiers he had met representing the tropics. He cheekily named it “Athletes from Exotic Nations.”
When Goutt Goncalves competed at the 2014 Winter Olympics, it was the first time that East Timor, one of the world’s poorest countries, had fielded an athlete for the Games. Goutt Goncalves said he chose to represent the Southeast Asian nation because he wanted to raise the profile of the country where his mother was born.
Most of the athletes in the WhatsApp group come from similarly small nations. They pay for their own travel, splitting the costs among one another.
“If you have money, you can have staff and go training everywhere in the world,” said Bogdan Gligor, who coaches Goutt Goncalves. He spent a recent Tuesday morning lugging the bags of three skiers up the mountains in Yanqing, where Alpine sports are being held.
Many in the group say the odds have long been stacked against them. Nearly all these skiers have full-time jobs. Maeder, the skier from Ghana, said he took four or five years to pursue his dream of reaching the Olympics without a coach or the support of a national federation.
“It means a lot to raise the flag for Ghana as a winter sport nation,” he said. He and the others know they have no chance of winning a medal, but to them, it does not matter.
Yassine Aouich, a skier from Morocco who made his Olympic debut Sunday, said he had skied for only about two weeks last year because the coronavirus pandemic prevented him from going to France, where he usually trains.
“You know, the qualification for us is – it’s like the gold medal,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.