Fog and snow set in Saturday at Whistler Creekside for the first run of the men’s slalom event at the 2010 Winter Olympics. The conditions were so challenging that the on-site commentator likened it to “skiing through a bowl of milk.”
104 skiers competed in the first run, and only those who made it down successfully could advance to another run and medal contention. (Those with the best 30 posted times got a second crack at the mountain, and skiers with the swiftest three combined times received medals.)
The highest ranked skiers began to make their way down the slopes, and one after another they crashed, missed gates, wiped out. Disqualifications were countless, and all but one of the U.S. skiers succumbed, including champion Bode Miller.
As the bottom of the list of skiers approached, posting a fast time became almost a luxury. The raucous fans at the finish line were cheering for skiers to simply cross the finish line without missing a gate. Countries such as Iran, Peru, and Mexico—not so well known for their Alpine skiing—appeared next to athletes’ names.
The crowd began to recognize that these were the athletes we’d seen walking into the opening ceremonies two weeks before as lone competitors from their countries. Their time to represent their respective nations had come. Could they make it to the bottom without crashing and post an official time?
One by one, they pushed out of the starting gate and made their way down the mountain. If they missed a gate, as Albanian Erjon Tola did, they’d walk back up the hill, go around the gate properly, and continue on. Some still couldn’t make it, but for those that did—including Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong from Ghana (aka “The Snow Leopard”)—there was a celebration like no other I’ve ever witnessed awaiting them at the bottom of the slope.
After all was said and done, 48 skiers failed to finish the course that day, but about 20 little-known skiers representing nations with small Olympic delegations completed official runs. They hugged and greeted crowds of new fans, and were mobbed by press eager to document their brief but authentic and hard-earned Olympic experiences. The gold medal eventually went to a relative newcomer, Giuliano Razzoli of Italy. But for these other athletes (and all of us there to cheer them), their accomplishment was not just good as gold—it was the Olympic spirit at its absolute best.
Photos by Susan Poulton