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Friday, January 17, 2014

How Tropical Countries Get To The Winter Olympics

Jasmine Campbell practices slalom racing on her home mountain, Sun Valley's Baldy. (Tom Banse/Northwest News Network)

Jasmine Campbell practices slalom racing on her home mountain, Sun Valley’s Baldy. (Tom Banse/Northwest News Network)

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games kick off in Sochi next month, and some of the 85 countries sending athletes to Russia may come as a surprise. Not only will the celebrated Jamaican bobsledders be back, but so will skiers from countries that rarely — if ever — see snow, including Brazil, Zimbabwe and Thailand.

There’s also Peru, which has beautiful mountains, but not a strong winter sports tradition, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which are known better for warm blue water. However, the territory will likely be represented by a college student who calls Sun Valley, Idaho, home.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, the Tom Banse of Northwest News Network has the story of Idaho’s Jasmine Campbell.




OK, let's hit the slopes now. The 2014 Winter Olympics Games kick off in Sochi next month, and you might be surprised by some of the 85 countries sending athletes to Russia. Not only will the celebrated Jamaican bobsledders be back, but so will skiers from countries that rarely, if ever, see snow. We're talking about Brazil, Zimbabwe, Thailand.

There's also Peru, which has beautiful mountains, of course, but not a strong winter sports tradition, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, better known for warm, blue water. However, the territory will likely be represented in Sochi by a college student who calls Sun Valley, Idaho, home.

From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, the Northwest News Network's Tom Banse has our story.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Thanks, Coach.

(as character) Why don't you put some training wheels on that sled?

TOM BANSE, BYLINE: The movie "Cool Runnings" immortalized the Jamaican bobsled squad's quest for Winter Olympic glory at Calgary in 1988. Today, Alpine skier Jasmine Campbell embraces a connection to it.

JASMINE CAMPBELL: I just really take pride in the fact, I guess, that I have even an inkling in association with them, even though it's a few islands away.

BANSE: Campbell is used to comparisons ever since she set her sights on competing at the Winter Olympics. She was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and that's whose flag she wants to carry in Sochi.

CAMPBELL: I think that they're doing what most every other country is doing there. That sort of unity an event like the Olympics can generate on an international level is really cool.

BANSE: If you made a movie about Campbell, it would likely contain more drama than comedy. The 22-year-old double major in psychology and philosophy takes her quest very seriously. She aims to compete in the slalom and giant slalom events.

CAMPBELL: It's just basically an 18 hour job where I'm always thinking of skiing. I wake up in the morning, before going upstairs, I watch a ski video. When I go to bed at night I watch a ski video. And then during the day, I have double training sessions.

BANSE: Campbell took up ski racing after her family moved to Idaho from the Caribbean. She was about 10 years old back then. It didn't take long before she was dreaming of being on the U.S. Ski Team. But then in high school, an injury derailed her ambitions for a long time.

These days, Campbell exceeds the minimum requirements to ski at the Olympics. But when I ask if she could qualify for the highly competitive Team USA, she shakes her head no. Her dad though says he tried to encourage his daughter to hold on to her Olympic dreams.

John Campbell suggested she follow his path. He skied in the 1992 Winter Olympics on the Virgin Islands team.

JOHN CAMPBELL: It was probably the coolest two weeks of my entire life, barring, you know, having kids and getting married. And I'm really excited for Jasmine to have this opportunity.

BANSE: Decades ago, territories such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Hong Kong successfully petitioned the International Olympic Committee. They won the right to field Olympic teams separate from their mother countries. This year, East Timor and Zimbabwe are making their debut at the Winter Games.

JANICE FORSYTH: So we're seeing more and more entries from these parts of the world.

BANSE: That's Janice Forsyth. She directs the International Center for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario. And she says she's noticed a dogged effort by the IOC to expand interest and visibility of the Winter Games by including more warm weather countries.

FORSYTH: Because of course, the more countries that participate in the Games, especially in different parts of the world, the more spectators they get, which means more revenue, right, in terms of broadcasting rights. So there's a real business incentive behind this interest to get more and more nations, especially tropical nations, into the Olympic Games.

BANSE: Forsyth says she's not surprised some athletes would look for alternate routes into the games via tropical nations. Residency requirements, though, are designed to foil interlopers. In the case of the U.S. Virgin Islands, a relocated winter athlete would have to live for three years in a place where it never snows.

Jasmine Campbell qualifies based on skill and being born in the Virgin Islands. Campbell says she proudly wars the uniform of a nation she hasn't lived in for many years.

CAMPBELL: I don't know. I almost prefer doing it this way because I really get to recognize and honor a part of me that never really gets to be brought up.

BANSE: Campbell is by no means the only U.S.-raised winter athlete bound for the Olympics under a flag other than the stars and stripes. An elite snowboarder from Bend, Oregon, is likely to compete for Australia. A skier from suburban Seattle with dual nationality has clinched a spot on the Danish Alpine team. And then there's the snowboarder from Washington state who married a Russian competitor in 2011 and will now ride for the host country in Sochi. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Tom Banse in Ketchum, Idaho.

CHAKRABARTI: Just goes to show all the world loves a great Olympic Games no matter where you're from. So with the Olympics just a couple weeks away, what are you looking forward to: figure skating; hockey; curling; maybe the biathlon? Let us know at hereandnow.org. You can also send us a tweet at hereandnowradio. I'm MeghnaWBUR, and Robin's hereandnowRobin. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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