KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Latin American countries made their debut in the winter edition of the Olympics at the 1928 Games in St. Moritz, where Argentina finished fourth in the five-man bobsled.
It’s been downhill ever since.
That fourth place – in an event that no longer exists – remains the high-water mark for a Winter Olympian from Latin America. At these games, 32 athletes from seven Latin American countries competed in Sochi, with Chilean freestyle skier Dominique Ohaco topping out with a 13th place in slopestyle.
Will there ever be a Winter Olympics medalist from Latin America?
“You can’t buy passion. It grows when you practice a sport,” said Mariano Rodriguez Giesso, the Argentina delegation chief in Sochi. “You need someone to spread that passion, someone people can watch on their screens and be inspired to take up a sport.”
Argentina and Chile would seem to have the best chance to find an athlete who could inspire a Latin American nation to such Olympic greatness. Both countries, located on either side of the Andes mountains, have a winter sports tradition and world-class ski resorts, including Bariloche in Argentina and Portillo in Chile.
What they lack, said skier Noelle Barahona of Chile, who competed in four Alpine events in Sochi, is a system of financial support for athletes year-round, not only when the games are approaching.
“No one in Chile cares about us for four years, then they remember us when the Winter Games are approaching,” Barahona said. “Now we’ll go to Chile and we probably won’t see a cent in the next three years.”
While athletes from Argentina and Chile do have access to have snow-capped mountains at home, they say their countries also lack the necessary infrastructure to develop athletes who can compete at an Olympic level.
“We have a similar winter (to Europe), maybe with even more snow,” said Eugenio Claro, a 20-year old Chilean skier who finished 45th in the super-G and did not finish the giant slalom in Sochi.
“But the (ski) season in Chile is shorter, maybe three months, while it lasts seven months in Europe,” Claro said. “We have maybe five ski resorts, which are difficult to access for the common Chilean. This makes the sport very expensive for us.”
Most ski resorts in Chile are located high in the Andes, in the central and central-southern part of the country.
“Then there’s Patagonia, but that region is uninhabited. There are no ski resorts,” he said. “It’s not only financial support (to athletes), you also need a complete infrastructure. You can throw money around, but it won’t help without the infrastructure.”
There is little to no snow anywhere else in Latin America. It never falls in Brazil, which with 13 sent the most athletes of any Latin American nation to Sochi, including teams in four-man and women’s bobsled. They train in other countries, as do the athletes from Peru, Venezuela, Mexico and Paraguay.
Among them: German pop-singer and photographer Prince Hubertus Von Hohenlohe, born in Mexico, who is competing in his sixth consecutive Winter Games. He is expected to wear a mariachi-themed body suit in today’s slalom.
Siblings Ornella and Manfred Oettl Reyes, born in Germany to a German father and Peruvian mother, train in Austria.
“Winter sports are a chance for Peruvians who live in other countries to represent us,” said Jose Quinones, president of Peru’s Olympic Committee.
They often have to go to extreme lengths to do so. Antonio Pardo, the first Venezuelan to compete in Alpine skiing and the sixth athlete from his country to participate in the Winter Games, had to create a national ski federation just so he could race in Sochi.
That included organizing a Venezuelan national championship. It took place in Bariloche, Argentina.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” said the 43-year old banker, who lives in Switzerland and Venezuela, and did not finish his run in the giant slalom. “I always had this idea on my mind, to compete in the Olympics. I didn’t want to be 60, 70 years old and think, ‘I could’ve been in the games and never tried.’ ”
Peru’s Roberto Carcelen finished last in 15-kilometer cross-country skiing. The Microsoft consultant, who lives in Seattle, competed with two broken ribs and memorably crossed the finish line waving a Peruvian flag. He finished almost half an hour after the winner, Dario Cologna of Switzerland, who greeted him at the end of the race.
Carcelen was Peru’s first ever Winter Olympian four years ago in Vancouver. Sochi, he said, will be his last games.
“This is enough. I retire. I’m 43. I think I can make better use of my time preparing a Peru delegation for the future,” he said. “We’ve got to make the (winter) sport more massive to get better results.”