The Saddest Olympian in Sochi Says He Feels “Like One of Those Stray Dogs”

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A Blog About the Olympic Games
Feb. 22 2014 12:34 PM

The Saddest Olympian in Sochi Says He Feels “Like One of Those Stray Dogs”

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Justin Reiter, in happier times.

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

On Saturday morning, the loneliest snowboarder in Sochi competed in the least popular event of the Winter Olympics, to the complete disinterest of his teammates, the media, and the American public. The event is parallel slalom snowboarding. The snowboarder is Justin Reiter, a 33-year-old American who has been racing competitively for a decade and a half, getting no attention and little support from the snowboarding community and the sporting media. But Reiter embodies the Olympic spirit more than anyone else on Team USA. And he could really, really, really use your support.

Reiter has the misfortune to compete in Alpine snowboarding, a discipline that few Americans even know exists. Alpine snowboarders race downhill on a weird elongated board, focusing on speed, not style. The discipline does not involve tricks, or halfpipes, or Flying Tomatoes; it’s not very sexy, and thus doesn’t get much attention. Reiter is probably the best competitive Alpine snowboarder in America. He is also one of the only competitive Alpine snowboarders in America.

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Reiter used to have a colleague, an American slalom snowboarder named Vic Wild—until Wild moved to Russia, which treats its Alpine snowboarders like kings. “If I was still riding for the [U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association], I'd be back home maybe with some mediocre job, doing something mediocre,” Wild told the Wall Street Journal the other day. When Wild won gold for Russia in the giant slalom on Wednesday, Reiter, who finished in 24th place, started crying. (Tears of joy, he claimed.) “The only difference between [us] is that he has a complete team of people supporting him,” Reiter said.

Reiter does not. He apparently gets so little support from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association that “he spends much of his time living in his truck,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Reiter raised some money to fund his Olympic bid via a crowdfunding project on the website RallyMe. He didn’t raise all that much, though: When last I checked, he’s raked in $14,566. The Jamaican bobsled team, by contrast, got almost $200,000 in four days.

“I bust my ass to be here and make a lot of sacrifices because I love what I do,” Reiter told ESPN recently. “But to not even be recognized by your own industry, an industry that raised me and hopefully I've put something back into ... I'd be lying if I said it didn't hurt.” Truly, Justin Reiter is Sochi’s saddest Olympian.

Reiter should be followed around everywhere he goes in Sochi by a guy playing a sad trombone. During the opening ceremony, most of the other skiers and snowboarders apparently thought Reiter was a coach. When freestyle snowboarders learn that Reiter is an alpinist, they automatically assume that he is lame and square. Reiter isn’t, and he recently told ESPN that his teammates “don't take the time to look below the surface, dig a little deeper and ask.” (The jerks.) “Everyone’s talking about stray dogs in Sochi,” Reiter recently told Al-Jazeera. “I feel like one of those stray dogs.” This is a sad, sad man.

Going into Saturday’s parallel slalom race, Reiter had high hopes. He had done well on the world circuit this year—he took silver in parallel slalom at the 2013 World Championships—and he thought he could compete for a medal. “I'd like to show kids that they can do this without the support of the USSA, without an industry behind them, without a country behind them,” he told ESPN. “They can succeed on their own.” Instead, he showed kids the exact opposite, failing even to make it out of the qualifying rounds. Then, to add insult to injury, he had to sit and watch as Vic Wild won yet another gold medal.

Reiter's Sochi experience feels like it was scripted by Charles Schulz. But you know what? At least he made it to the Olympics, and he got there on his own, which is even more impressive. The man can hold his head high. On his Facebook page in January, Reiter posted a quote from Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics: “The important thing at the games is not to win but to take part, for the essential thing in life is not to conquer but to struggle well.” Justin Reiter took part. Justin Reiter struggled well. And now, somebody needs to buy Justin Reiter a drink.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.