February 18, 2014 / 3:48 PM / 4 years ago

Exotic underdogs not all they seem to be

ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Malta, Togo, Thailand and Brazil had their moment in the limelight at the Olympics on Tuesday but some of Alpine skiing’s more exotic entrants would stand out as much at ‘home’ as on a snowy giant slalom slope.

Brazil's Maya Harrisson reacts in the finish area after competing in the first run of the women's alpine skiing giant slalom event during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center February 18, 2014. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Take Togo’s Alessia Afi Dipol for example. An 18-year-old Italian student, she competed for India before switching allegiances.

Or Brazil’s Maya Harrisson, who struggled to give an interview in Portuguese after Tuesday’s women’s giant slalom.

Olympic Games present a rare chance for near-amateurs to compete with their sport’s greats and have traditionally attracted a fair share of underdogs endearing themselves to the world’s audiences as they chase unlikely dreams.

This time round, changing flags to be able to gain one of the coveted 89 starting positions seemed the way to go.

Dipol, 18, was born in Pieve di Cadore, a picturesque little town in northeast Italy, and lives near the ski resort of Cortina d‘Ampezzo. Her website is entirely in Italian and she has only been to her West African country once.

“My father has a factory of sport clothes in Togo and we took the opportunity to represent this country,” said Dipol, sporting Togo’s bright yellow racing suit.

“My aim was to have fun and to give my best,” said Dipol, who came 55th and took almost 26 seconds longer than Maze to master the course twice.

Harrisson despite being born in Brazil, could not understand the question when a Brazilian TV channel attempted to interview her in Portuguese on Tuesday, and the question had to be repeated in English.

The 21-year old from Rio de Janeiro was adopted by her parents and moved to Switzerland as a baby. “My parents, who are Swiss-Italian-Canadian were living in Brazil when they adopted me. I arrived in Geneva just before my first birthday.”


Born and raised in Switzerland to a Swiss mother and a father from Portugal, the country she represents in Sochi, Camille Dias trained for two hours a day and tried to ski at least twice a week ahead of the Games, unimaginable for athletes from Austria, Germany or the United States.

“For me they are the stars. They are my idols from when I was young. I‘m very happy to compete with them in the Olympics,” said the Portuguese, speaking with a heavy French accent. “Maybe the Olympics will help me get more funding.”

Briton Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards became a famous example of heroic failure when he came last in the ski jump in the 1988 Olympics and the Jamaican bobsled team has even had their fate turned into a motion picture.

Professional athletes often adopt other passports to be able to benefit from better funding elsewhere, but for those less likely to win medals, changing flags is about just being able to take part.

British violinist Vanessa Mae started for Thailand, her natural father’s country. If there was a gold medal in media frenzy, it would have been hers for the taking, still talking to reporters well after the medallists had escaped the rain.

But in terms of sporting achievements, Mae, who started under her father’s name of Vanakorn, came last, losing more than 50 seconds on Maze.

With athletes representing countries not usually associated with skiing, rain and fog were quickly forgotten, however, and gave centre-stage to the Olympic spirit.

“That was way more exciting than I thought it would be. I‘m so happy to be here. I‘m really overwhelmed,” said Jasmine Campbell after making it through the gates for the U.S. Virgin Islands after she spent the first nine years of her life there.

“Obviously there’s a difference in skill but I’ve had a few conversations with a couple of the top skiers and they’re just such kind, generous, welcoming people. They make you feel very at ease and not nearly as intimidated as I probably should be.”

Campbell, who now lives in Idaho, came 56th.

Reporting by Annika Breidthardt; editing by Martyn Herman

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