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How a poor, war-weary tropical country produced its first Olympic skier

Move over, Jamaican bobsledders. Yohan Goutt-Goncalves is one of history's least likely Olympians.

East timor coastEnlarge
East Timorese boys swim at a capitol city beach in April 2012. Better known for its wars and poverty, this tiny nation has produced a Olympic skier, in one of history's more quixotic Olympic journeys. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear “East Timor”?

Answer “East who?” and you’re on Yohan Goutt-Goncalves’s list.

If you think of a decades-long bloody Indonesian occupation, that’s impressive. But you’re still on his list.

The 19-year-old is on a mission to introduce East Timor to the world — and, for those who only know its history of turmoil, to show that there is more to the country and its people.

He’ll fulfill his mission on Friday, by carrying the flag of Timor Leste, as the country is officially known, in the Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

It will be a quixotic climax to the young man’s quest, and a proud moment for one of the planet’s youngest countries (it achieved independence in 2002).

Goutt-Goncalves is the first East Timorese ever to qualify for the Winter Games.

But don’t book your next ski vacation in East Timor just yet. While there is undoubtedly more to the country than war, skiing is definitely not a local attraction.

GlobalPost was unable to confirm whether a single flake of snow has ever fallen on the equatorial land. And the local language has no word for “skiing.”

The country occupies half an island in the Pacific, amid the Indonesian archipelago, an hour’s flight north of Darwin, Australia. It’s a rugged but tropical place, with magnificent coral reefs that draw intrepid scuba divers.

So how did Goutt-Goncalves do it?

Chalk it up to geographic luck, a smart strategy, and an alpine version of cramming.  

He was born in France, of a French father and a Timorese mother. Yet while most professional French skiers hail from the Alps, Goutt-Goncalves grew up in a Paris suburb and skied for just two weeks a year, during his Christmas vacation. He loved it, and increased his training as he grew older.

But it was only last June, when he was officially allowed to represent East Timor in international competitions, that he moved to the Alps and started training every day.

He also needed to jump through some Olympic size bureaucratic hoops.

“Snow-skating,” as the local media call it, definitely isn’t a national sport. Goutt-Goncalves is the only active member of East Timor’s ski federation. In fact, he had to launch it himself, in order for the Olympics to even consider him. That took time. Starting a ski federation wasn’t exactly a high government priority.

East Timor is one of Asia’s poorest nations. A former Portuguese colony, it was invaded by neighboring Indonesia soon after the Portuguese left in 1975. The 25-year repressive occupation left at least 100,000 of the country’s 1.2 million dead, and only ended with the intervention of an international peacekeeping mission in 1999.

Goutt-Goncalves’s mother fled the island when she was 11. He says wearing the colors of her native country at the Olympics was his childhood dream.

Given the hoops, don’t even think about implying that he sought qualification for East Timor because he wasn’t good enough for France’s national ski team.

That makes him angry.

“I was eight when I told my parents that one day I would represent East Timor at the Olympics,” he says. “Even if I had reached the level to enter the French national team, East Timor was always my goal.”

It is indeed easier to qualify for East Timor.

To enter the Olympics, athletes have to rank among the top 500 in the world, unless they’re the sole representative of their country. In that case, they have to obtain a minimum number of points in international races.

Goutt-Goncalves smartly avoided the highly competitive main European races, and chased points in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Iran and Norway. Last December in Serbia, he finally reached the 140 points needed to qualify for the Games’ slalom ski race.

He acknowledges his luck. “It’s every skier’s dream to participate in the Olympics,” he says.

Ranking 2000th in the world, he doesn’t have much chance of a medal, but his supporters couldn’t care less. He’s been named East Timor’s “ambassador to the youth.” His race will be shown on a big screen in capital city Dili’s main square. His Facebook page has been inundated with messages of support.

“I get messages like “We don’t understand what you do but we’re with you because you don’t forget where you come from,” he says. Last September, he met the country’s president, Taur Matan Ruak. Goutt-Goncalves gave the politician ski gloves as a present. “I told him that these are probably the first ski gloves to enter East Timor.”

To make sure he’s “not too ridiculous” among top athletes in Sochi, he’s been training hard with a team of other athletes who don’t have a big federation behind them. In the Alps resort of Crest-Voland, he and Irish, Romanian and Belgian skiers share a coach and the cost of training.

For these Olympics, Goutt-Goncalves says he has only two goals: Honor his role as East Timor “ambassador,” and finish his race. And actually, if it’s not too much to ask, he’d also like to thumb his nose at his very good friend Samir Azzimani, who represented Morocco in the 2010 Vancouver games.

“He finished 44th in the slalom. I want to beat him and show East Timor can do better than Morocco, with its mountains and snow.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/140204/east-timor-poor-war-weary-tropical-country-first-olympic-skier