10 Tales of Warm-Weather Winter Olympians
The Winter Olympics are traditionally dominated by athletes from countries where winter brings freezing temperatures and snow, but that hasn't stopped a number of athletes from more tropical climates from infiltrating the ranks of the (c)old guard. From the Jamaican bobsled team to an Indian luger, here are 10 stories of warm-weather Winter Olympians, including a few who will compete in Vancouver next month.
1. The Jamaican Bobsled Team
Perhaps the most famous of all warm-weather Winter Olympians, the Jamaican bobsled team that inspired the 1993 film Cool Runnings made its debut in Calgary in 1988. Republican politician George Fitch, a former U.S. government attachÃ© in Kingston who is currently serving as the mayor of Warrenton, Va., founded the original team. Three team members were in the military and had unsuccessfully tried out for the Jamaican national track and field team. "Jamaica has great athletes, and bobsled is the winter sport that best coincides with the athletic skills you find there," Fitch said in 1988. "I only wanted to do this if we could be competitive and respectable. This is not a joke." To offset the cost of its training and travel, the team sold copies of its official reggae song, "Hobbin' and A-Bobbin'," as well as T-shirts and sweatshirts. Jamaica's four-man team crashed and finished last in Calgary and didn't fare much better in 1992. The team showed dramatic improvement in 1994, finishing 14th, ahead of the United States.
2. The Snow Leopard
Remember the name Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong. You're bound to hear it again during NBC's telecast of the Vancouver Games. The skier, nicknamed the Snow Leopard, is the first Ghanaian to qualify for the Winter Olympics. Born in Scotland while his father was teaching geography at Glasgow University, Nkrumah-Acheampong grew up in West Africa, where his only exposure to snow was on television. He moved to the UK in 2000 and learned to ski on an artificial slope after taking a job as a receptionist at an indoor skiing center in England. The Snow Leopard set his sights on the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, but crashed in his final qualifying race and narrowly missed the cut. He dedicated himself to improving his skills in the years that followed and that perseverance paid off when he officially qualified for Vancouver last March. Nkrumah-Acheampong has no delusions of competing for a medal. "I am a very realistic person and I know there is virtually no chance of that," he recently told the Vancouver Sun. "I rather want to show people that you can do something when you come from a zero skier to qualifying for the Olympics in six years."
3. Grandma Luge
Anne Abernathy graduated from American University in 1975 with a degree in theater arts and performed as a singer at nightclubs for several years before discovering luge on a trip to Lake Placid in 1983. Twenty-three years and six trips to the Winter Olympics later, she retired as the oldest female athlete to compete in the Winter Games. Abernathy, who lived in Florida but had dual-citizenship in the Virgin Islands, overcame lymphatic carcinoma to finish 16th at her first Winter Olympics in 1988. At 34, Abernathy was older than most of her competition in Calgary, and was given the nickname "Grandma Luge" during the early 1990s. During a 2001 World Cup race in Germany, Abernathy suffered brain damage in a crash that split her helmet open and left her unconscious for 20 minutes. Thanks to innovative brain biofeedback therapy, Abernathy recovered in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Abernathy was prepared to make her sixth Winter Olympics appearance in Turin, but broke her wrist during a training run. While she was unable to start her event, she filed an application with the Court of Arbitration for Sport to be reinstated on the Olympic starters list. The committee agreed to include Abernathy's name on the starters list, making her women's record for Winter Olympic appearances official.
4. "¨The Nike Project"¨
Philip Boit was a middle distance runner with no skiing experience when Nike approached him and one of his countrymen, Henry Bitok, in 1996 with an interesting proposal: move to Finland and train for the 1998 Winter Olympics on the shoe company's dime. Nike reportedly paid $200,000 for Boit and Bitok's lodging and a Finnish coach. Boit ultimately represented Kenya in Nagano, with Bitok serving as the alternate. He finished last in the 10-kilometer classic race, but was involved in one of the more memorable scenes of the 1998 Games. Norwegian Bjorn Daehlie won the race and waited 20 minutes for Boit to cross the finish line, greeting him with a hug. "Keep up what you're doing," Daehlie told Boit. "You're a champion, too."
While some criticized Nike for making a mockery of the Olympics in the name of stealth marketing, Boit, whose hat, collar, and sweater all bore the ubiquitous Nike swoosh, was moved by the experience, even naming one of his sons Daehlie. Nike terminated its sponsorship of Boit after the 1999 Nordic skiing World Championships, but Boit continued to dry train in Kenya. He participated in the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, finishing ahead of three competitors, and competed again at the 2006 Games in Turin. Boit, whose uncle won the bronze medal in the 800 meters at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, will race in Vancouver, where he hopes to finish respectably before contemplating retirement.
5. The Underdog Advocate
"¨Lamine Gueye was enjoying a career as a model and actor, having landed a small role in the James Bond film Moonraker, when he founded the Senegalese Ski Federation in 1979. Five years later, Gueye became the first athlete from Senegal to compete in the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. After his first run, Gueye told reporters, "We have no word for downhill in Senegalese because we have no mountains. I was so afraid I almost threw up. I have fully tested the safety measures and can tell you that they work."
Gueye competed at the 1992 and 1994 Games as well, and has been critical of the International Olympic Committee's decision to make qualifying standards stricter after 1992—an effort to weed out some of the less polished athletes from countries without a rich history of winter sports. "The Olympic philosophy is that the whole world takes part," Gueye told Reuters in 2008. "You have the best in the world but you also have representatives from the lesser countries."
6. The Luger Who Dripped Blood
"¨Gueye wasn't the only competitor who seemed out of place in Sarajevo. Physicist George Tucker, a doctoral student at Wesleyan University, competed in luge as the only representative from his native Puerto Rico. Tucker, who lost a lot of skin bouncing off of the track walls, later described himself as "the luger who dripped blood." He finished last at his first Winter Olympics, but was wildly popular with the media and fans. Tucker, who was larger than the average luger, once recalled a story during his training prior to the 1984 Winter Olympics when a track worker accused him of being a "fat guy trying to pass himself off as an Olympic athlete."
7. The Professor"¨
Prawat Nagvajara stood a better chance of becoming an international rock star than an Olympic cross-country skier. But against all odds, the professor of engineering at Drexel University became the first athlete to represent Thailand at the Winter Olympics at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Nagvajara played keyboard in a teenage rock band while growing up in Thailand and didn't see snow until he was 18. He said he was inspired to take up cross-country skiing and compete in the Olympics after watching Boit compete in 1998. Nagvajara qualified for Salt Lake City by competing at internationally sanctioned races and earning the blessing of the Thai Olympic Committee. He was disqualified in the 30-kilometer race after being lapped and finished 68th out of 71 racers in the 1.5-kilometer sprint. Nagvajara competed again in 2006."¨
8. The Messenger
Isaac Menyoli took up cross-country skiing in 1997 when he moved from his native Cameroon to the United States to study architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Menyoli became the first Cameroonian to compete in the Winter Olympics at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, where he finished last in the 15-kilometer race. Menyoli didn't care much about his time, however. He competed in the necessary five Olympic qualifying races and spent $15,000 of his own money on training in order to use the Olympic platform to spread an important message to Cameroonian TV and radio stations about the AIDS epidemic affecting his country. "I want to ski for a reason," he told Time in 2002. "I want to tell people that they really have to watch out, that AIDS is serious."
9. "¨The Chosen One of 1.1 Billion"¨
When members of the International Luge Federation were recruiting potential athletes from warm-weather countries to train to compete at the 1998 Nagano Games, one of the young men they chose was India's Shiva Keshavan. The ILF was looking to grow its sport and they saw potential in Keshavan. After all, he was familiar with snow. Keshavan, who had learned to ski while growing up at the foot of the Himalayas, was flown to Austria, where he and several other athletes recruited by the ILF were introduced to luge. Keshavan was the first Indian to compete at the Winter Olympics and finished 28th in Nagano. He finished 33rd in Salt Lake City, 26th in Turin, and, after winning a silver medal at the Asian Championships last year, will compete in Vancouver next month as part of a three-man team from India.
10. The Prince
"¨Prince Albert II of Monaco competed in bobsled in a record five Winter Olympics from 1988 to 2002 before becoming ruler of Monaco upon the death of his father in 2005. The Prince, who serves on the International Olympic Committee, refused any royal treatment at the Olympics, opting instead to stay in the athletes village each time. His brakeman at the Calgary Games in 1988 was a casino croupier.