Real snow finally arrived at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and disrupted events on Sunday, leading to mixed fortunes for the Alpine skiiers who were breaking new ground for their countries in difficult conditions.
Saudi Arabia’s Fayik Abdi finished 44th, but Haiti’s Richardson Viano failed to finish. Benjamin Alexander, Jamaica’s first ever Alpine skiier, was slowest of those to complete the course, finishing more than a minute behind the gold medallist, Switzerland’s Marco Odermatt.
The environmental impact of the artificial snow used by hosts China has been widely criticised, but with a blizzard affecting the north of the country on Sunday, at the Yanqing skiing venue it was the real thing that was the problem. The second run of the giant slalom event was delayed for over an hour waiting for conditions to improve. “You can’t see much, you don’t know where to put your feet, said the eventual bronze medal winner, Mathieu Faivre of France, after his first run.
Abdi and Viano represented countries making their first ever appearance at a Winter Games, but the medals inevitably went to more traditional skiing powerhouses. Odermatt finished with a combined time of 2:09:35, putting him 0.19 seconds ahead of Slovenia’s Zan Kranjec. The debutants were all vocal in hoping to encourage greater participation in winter sports in their respective nations.
Fayik Abdi had been fast-tracked by Saudi authorities into competing – he only took up skiing a year ago. He finished 44th, some 37 seconds off the pace of the leaders. After the race he said: “Our goal wasn’t just to finish − our goal was to ski as best as we could. I am happy I tried my best. It could have gone better for sure. The fact we finished is definitely a plus.
“I don’t want it to be about me − I want it to be about Saudi and inspiring and encouraging Saudis to do what they love and to find a passion,” Abdi added. “I just hope I influence people and represent Saudi the right way.”
Alexander, the 38-year-old former DJ who moved from the UK to Wyoming in order to improve his skiing, was representing Jamaica as their first ever Alpine skier. Ahead of the Games he had said his aim going down the giant slalom was “survival”. He finished ahead of eight skiers who did not finish their second run, and 35 others who scored a DNF on their first run. “Frickin’ hell, that was hard,” he said out loud in comments caught on camera after he crossed the finish line.
Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, who finished eighth, praised the decision by the authorities to press ahead with the race despite the snow. “Definitely, the light is more than skiable, it just makes it difficult. I like it,” he said. “The snow is a little uneven so it is quite aggressive in spots. I think it was difficult for everyone.”
The adverse weather in China on Sunday caused the freestyle skiing slopestyle women’s qualification to be cancelled, depriving the home crowd another view of gold medallist Eileen Gu. The men’s 4 x 10km cross-country relay race was completed in a time more than 20 minutes slower than at the last Olympics due to the conditions, and the women’s downhill training session at Yanqing was canceelled.
Haiti’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony, Viano, made it through the first intermediary checkpoint on his first run in the giant slalom before getting his DNF. The 19-year-old was adopted from an orphanage on the island nation by an Italian couple who live in Briançon, France.
There he learned to ski, and later in life was contacted by the Haitian Ski Federation about representing them. He got his Haitian passport in 2019, and has since said that his aim includes going back to the orphanage he came from. “I am proud to show them my success. I really want to go back there to see my roots and especially to give dreams to young people through sport and its values.”