YANQING, China — One by one they zigzagged down the mountain, close to the finish of a line of almost 90 racers in a snowy large slalom, trying extra like ski hobbyists on a weekend jaunt than world-class opponents.
Many of the skiers have been first-time Olympians, introduced collectively by one very pertinent factor they’ve in frequent: a scarcity of snow in the nations they’re representing in Beijing, together with Jamaica, Ghana, India, East Timor and Morocco.
“I at all times 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.
Mr. Maeder, who’s ranked 2,443rd in the world in large slalom, was capable of make it to the Olympics in half due to a change in qualifying standards aimed toward producing a extra numerous discipline of opponents.
Keenly conscious that snowboarding has been dominated by athletes from richer, colder nations, the International Olympic Committee and snowboarding’s world governing physique have tried to make the sport extra inclusive by means of a quota system that lowers the threshold of qualification.
But that call has put a bitter edge on what was alleged 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 present them the absolute best probability of qualifying and has raised questions on whether or not the Olympics could be each an elite competitors and an inclusive, world 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 International Ski Federation mentioned that it was reviewing these races, held in December and January, and that the outcomes might result in penalties for anybody who had damaged its guidelines.
It declined to specify which races it was inspecting, 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 12 months, Austria obtained two further spots, whereas Germany and France every obtained one.
“I was never going to be competitive,” mentioned Benjamin Alexander, a 38-year-old Jamaican skier and former D.J. He completed final in the large slalom in a race on Sunday. “The people I was competing against started skiing at 2 and had their first race training at 4 or 5,” he mentioned.
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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. minimize the variety of Alpine skiers allowed to take part in the Games to 306 from 320. To guarantee gender fairness, it mentioned every nation might ship not more than 11 males or 11 ladies. Those limits, mixed with the looser qualifying requirements, have prompted some conventional winter sports activities powerhouses, comparable to Austria, to complain.
Even although the discipline has turn into extra numerous — a core objective of the I.O.C. — many elite skiers who depend on the sport for a livelihood now say they’re being unnoticed. That can probably have an effect on their sponsorships, the important supply of revenue for any prime skilled skier.
But some say that loss is a acquire for nations like Haiti and Saudi Arabia. Both nations made their Winter Games debuts in Beijing, fielding Alpine skiers. The Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand additionally despatched groups of skiers to the Olympics.
In order 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 accomplish that, a few of the skiers organized their very own races, which assured much less competitors.
Those races, held in locations like Liechtenstein, Montenegro and Dubai, drew the consideration 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 declaring that the Liechtenstein race had solely 10 opponents.
A separate report that was filed to the International Ski Federation and reviewed by The New York Times recommended that the races have been fastened, and that skiers with a historical past of excessive efficiency had “significantly underperformed” to permit athletes from small nations to earn the obligatory qualifying factors to go to the Olympics.
One of these elite athletes, in keeping 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, mentioned: “For sure, I did not perform 110 percent. But that doesn’t mean I slowed down on purpose or anything like that.” He mentioned that his journey and lodging prices have been paid for by the race organizers, as in 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 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 mentioned.
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,” mentioned Mr. Alexander, who made historical past on Sunday as the first Alpine skier representing Jamaica at the Olympics.
He denied that the qualifying races, a number of of which he helped manage, have been 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 mentioned.
The backlash has forged a cloud over what was alleged 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. “Just read your story, man,” Mr. Goutt Goncalves wrote. “Good luck. Let’s bring small nations to the Olympics.”
Mr. Goutt Goncalves, a three-time Olympian, created a WhatsApp group final 12 months, pulling collectively all the skiers he had met representing the tropics. He cheekily named it “Athletes from Exotic Nations.”
When Mr. Goutt Goncalves competed at the 2014 Winter Olympics, it was the first time that East Timor, one in all the world’s poorest nations, had fielded an athlete for the Games. Mr. Goutt Goncalves mentioned he selected to characterize the Southeast Asian nation as a result of he needed to boost the profile of the nation the place his mom was born.
Most of the athletes in the WhatsApp group come from equally small nations. They pay for their very own journey, splitting the prices amongst each other.
“If you have money, you can have staff and go training everywhere in the world,” mentioned Bogdan Gligor, who coaches Mr. Goutt Goncalves. He spent a latest Tuesday morning lugging the luggage of three skiers up the mountains in Yanqing, the place Alpine sports activities are being held.
Many in the group say the odds have lengthy been stacked towards them. Nearly all these skiers have full-time jobs. Mr. Maeder, the skier from Ghana, mentioned he took 4 or 5 years to pursue his dream of reaching the Olympics with no coach or the help of a nationwide federation.
“It means a lot to raise the flag for Ghana as a winter sport nation,” he mentioned. He and the others know they don’t have any probability of profitable a medal, however to them, it doesn’t matter.
Yassine Aouich, a skier from Morocco who made his Olympic debut on Sunday, mentioned he had skied for less than about two weeks final 12 months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic prevented him from going to France, the place he normally trains.
“You know, the qualification for us is — it’s like the gold medal,” he mentioned.