WHISTLER, B.C. – Sometimes, the most intriguing Olympians are the ones who finish 78th and 67th, out of sight of NBC cameras, away from the media crush, nowhere near the medals podium.
That certainly was the case in the men’s giant slalom Tuesday, where the oldest man in the games – 51-year-old German prince/pop star/photographer Hubertus Von Hohenlohe – raced for Mexico (yes, Mexico!) against the youngest guy in the field, 16-year-old Peruvian Manfred Oettl Reyes. It didn’t matter much to them where they finished. They just wanted to finish.
Von Hohenlohe, a five-time Olympian who first competed in the 1984 Sarajevo Games, is the son of Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg and Princess Ira of Furstenberg, a Fiat heiress and former sister-in-law of fashion designer Diane von Fursternberg. Though he was raised mainly in Austria and Spain, Von Hohenlohe has always represented Mexico, his birthplace, in the Olympics. He founded the one-man Mexican ski team in 1981 and hopes his appearance at the games will boost tourism in Mexico.
When the Mexican flag was raised in the Athletes Village at the start of the Olympics, there was Von Hohenlohe, all by himself, standing at attention and humming the anthem.
He wore a colorful Mexican “bandido” racing suit Tuesday, complete with bandoleers and pistols painted onto the fabric. A small but spirited group of fans in Mexican sombreros rooted him on as he crossed the finish line in 78th place, 33.64 seconds behind winner Carlo Janka of Switzerland. He blew dramatic kisses to the crowd, stopped for interviews with anyone who cared to listen, and answered questions in English, Spanish, German, French and Italian.
Von Hohenlohe may not be the fastest skier here, but he is a showman. He has recorded eight albums under the name “Andy Himalaya.” He has dabbled in photography and had his work on display at galleries in Europe and New York. The charismatic aristocrat has homes in Vienna, the Italian Alps, Costa del Sol, and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. He sheepishly admits he only spends a few weeks a year in Mexico, but feels ties to his native country, nonetheless. He spent the first four years of his life there when his father was running a Volkswagen factory.
Oettel Reyes is even less familiar with Peru. He was born in Munich to a German father and Peruvian mother, and has visited Peru only twice in his life. But he said he chose to represent Peru because it was harder to make the German team and because “it sounds more special and cool to say I ski for Peru.”
The teenager’s custom-made racing suit featured llamas and Inca designs. A Peruvian fan started a Facebook group called “Peruvians in Vancouver” and Oettel Reyes was proud to say he has 300 fans following him. He admitted he was awestruck upon seeing ski stars Benjamin Raich, Aksel Svindal, Carlo Janka and Bode Miller.
“Those are guys I see only on TV, and to be only a few meters from them was amazing,” he said. “When I crossed the finish, I thought, ‘Wow, I just did the same run those other guys did.’ ”
In fact, he joked, “I’m better than Bode Miller,” because he completed the two-run race while the American triple-medalist missed a gate and did not finish. But not all went well for the teen.
“I lost my ski pole somewhere around the 10th gate, and that is very unprofessional,” he said, smiling. “I must go back up and search for it.”
Von Hohenlohe was satisfied with his result, and proud to be among the “exotic Olympians” in the race. He finished ahead of Jamyang Namgial of India, Muhammad Abbas of Pakistan, and Marino Cardelli of San Marino – none of whom were alive when Von Hohenlohe had his Olympic debut in 1984.
The rich heir finished 38th in the downhill in Sarajevo, but with each passing year, his placement is not as important to him as the thrill of participating.
“The Olympics are better when you’re older because you don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “When I was younger, I was a bit crazy, I didn’t think anything can happen. Now I have (had) three broken knees, a broken leg, broken hand. People have bad accidents, and you have it in your mind, so it’s more difficult to go so fast.
“When you’re younger you think everything’s going to go on like this, and then when you miss it, you’re like, ‘Oh, shoot, I didn’t live it.’ When you’re old you live everything. You inhale the opening ceremony. The feelings of being here are more intense; you can savor the moment.”
So, will he be back at age 55 for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia?
“I don’t think so,” he said, smiling. “This is it.”