Why All of the Worst (and Most Lovable) Winter Olympic Athletes Are in the Men’s Slalom

A Blog About the Olympic Games
Feb. 22 2014 4:55 PM

Why All of the Worst (and Most Lovable) Winter Olympic Athletes Are in the Men’s Slalom

Prince Hubertus Von Hohenlohe
Prince Hubertus Von Hohenlohe did not win the men's slalom at the Sochi Games.

Photo by ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re the sort of person who thinks the Winter Olympics have been going downhill ever since they stopped letting Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards blunder his way through the ski jump, then you’re probably a big fan of the men’s slalom race. Slalom skiing is the last bastion of enthusiastic amateurism in these modern, professionalized Winter Games, a venue in which world-class racers like Ivica Kostelic and Ted Ligety compete against Olympic tourists like Kanes Sucharitakul of Thailand (average yearly snowfall: zero) and the eccentric 55-year-old Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe of Mexico. How does this happen?

To be eligible for the Winter Olympics, skiers must rank in the top 500 in the International Ski Federation standings for their respective events—a standard which Mexican and Thai skiers will rarely meet. But! If a nation doesn’t have any skiers who meet those standards, they can still send a male and a female athlete to the Olympics, as long as those skiers have competed in at least five FIS-sanctioned races and received no more than 140 FIS points in each.* (With a little bit of training, you could probably meet that standard. Well, OK, a lot of training.) If a skier meets those relatively low standards, then he can come to the Olympics, but he can only compete in the slalom and the giant slalom. This is to prevent overmatched skiers from maiming or killing themselves in the speed events.

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And so, at every Winter Games, the slalom start list is longer than that of any other event, filled with proud representatives of the just-happy-to-be-here brigade—many of whom, it must be said, actually live in the nations for which they’re competing. The best known of these Olympic tourists is the aforementioned Hubertus von Hohenlohe, the 55-year-old Mexican skier and aristocrat who is finally having his Olympic media moment in this, his sixth Winter Games. “If you cannot win, then at least be stylish,” he told the Today show recently. Words to live by.

Prince Hubertus lost a ski not long after he started down the mountain on Saturday, and he was unable to finish the course. "I feel cool," he said, which is understandable given that he was wearing a mariachi-themed outfit. "I gave my best, I would have liked to make it down, but I'm OK with this." He continued, "But honestly, it was so difficult, I'm kind of happy that I don't have to do the second run. It was really tough." Now that's the Olympic spirit!

Prince Hubertus is wonderful, for sure. But the slalom skier with the best story is Yohan Carlos Goutt Gonçalves, who skis for Timor-Leste, and is the first Winter Olympian in that young and troubled nation’s history. Goutt Gonçalves, who grew up in France—his mother is from Timor-Leste—is 19 years old and is ranked No, 2,263 in the world in the slalom. On his Facebook page, he posted a photo of a letter he received from the prime minister of Timor-Leste. “Enjoy your day and go fast! Viva Timor-Leste!” the prime minister wrote. What a nice note!

While the FIS lets these lesser-known athletes take part in the games, it doesn’t do them any favors. They are forced to ski at the end, after the course has been torn up by the good racers. Nobody even bothers pretending that they have a shot at winning a medal, which is sort of hilarious and sad at the same time. During the second run of today’s slalom race, the announcers on the NBC online feed called the gold medal for Austria’s Mario Matt even though there were many, many skiers left to go.

And yet! The slalom course was very difficult this year, with subpar snow conditions, and many of the medal favorites failed to finish the course. As a result, several of the underqualified skiers—who were not skiing aggressively enough to crash—ended up placing much higher than they could have ever dreamed, simply because they finished the course where others did not. Before the Olympics began, Yohan Carlos Goutt Gonçalves told the media that he knew he wouldn’t finish first. “But I have a friend, Samir Azzimani, who represented Morocco at the Vancouver Games and came 44th in the slalom,” he said. “I would love to do better than that so that Timor is ahead of Morocco!” Goutt Gonçalves made his way down the slope with great deliberation, finishing at a glacial 2:30.89—49 seconds behind the leader. He came in 43rd place. Viva Timor-Leste, indeed!

Correction, Feb. 27, 2014: This post originally stated that skiers must have competed in at least five FIS-sanctioned races and finished no worse than 140th in each to qualify for the Olympic slalom and giant slalom. In fact, the skiers must average no more than 140 FIS points per race to make the Olympics. (As with golf, lower point totals are better in skiing.)

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.