KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Kanes Sucharitakul’s goal in the Olympic giant slalom race was not to finish last. On his personal scoresheet, he won the gold medal when he beat competitors from countries such as Libya, Peru, India and the Cayman Islands. Never mind that the Thai skier finished 65th and 29.77 seconds behind official winner Ted Ligety, a margin that mocks the stopwatch in an event decided by fractions of seconds.
For Sucharitakul, just getting down the mountain was a victory. That’s because no snow falls in Bangkok, where he was born and raised. He is a Winter Olympian, even though his country has no winter.
Sucharitakul falls into a special — and some would say marginal — class of Olympians who took roundabout routes to get here. They are called passport Olympians, tourist Olympians or Olympic carpetbaggers.
Some have dual citizenship, others have lots of money. At every Games these athletes — or aspiring athletes — drop in and enjoy the thrill of marching in Opening Ceremonies, rubbing shoulders with superstars in the village and striving to go faster, higher, stronger. The question is, what do the Olympics get from them?
To Sucharitakul, it’s a mutually beneficial tradeoff. He gets to ski with Bode Miller. The Olympics gain global diversity.
“The Olympic Games are not just about top-tier athletes, but about the full spectrum of athletes,” he said Wednesday. “The World Cup circuit is for the world’s best. The Winter Olympics is about representing your country to the best of your ability.”
He’s no slouch. He’s been skiing on winter holidays in France and Colorado since he was a child. He’s spent the past three years competing sporadically on the international ski federation circuit. He was on the boxing team at Cambridge University in England before devoting the past year to training with a French ski coach.
Then there’s Vanessa-Mae, a British pop violin star and sex symbol who competed for Thailand, her father’s home country, and under his surname, Vanakorn.
“My main purpose for being here was to really have a good time and improve my skiing in a very, very short amount of time,” Vanessa-Mae said after finishing 67th and last in the women’s giant slalom, a total of 50.10 seconds slower than winner Tina Maze on two runs. She called herself a “hobby skier.” “I was lucky that the Olympics allow exotic nations for people like me with day jobs.”
Using the Olympics for a ski lesson or publicity stunt deflates their stature and is an insult to athletes who dedicated themselves to the dream of reaching the pinnacle of their sport.
Hubertus Von Hohenlohe, a German prince who lives in and represents Mexico, competed in his sixth Olympics at age 55. He skied the slalom race Saturday. He wore a mariachi-styled speedsuit and was a crowd favorite, probably because so many spectators channeled their own Walter Mitty through him. But he crossed his ski tips and crashed in the first run.
“Honestly, it was so difficult I’m kind of happy I don’t have to do the second run,” he said. “If only I had been able to train a little more. I had a broken leg five weeks ago. It’s amazing I could ski at all.
“I think this is my last Olympics, unless I find some pill that makes me younger.”
A photographer and musician whom NBC once dubbed “the most interesting Olympian in the world,” Von Hohenlohe became founder and sole member of the Mexican Ski Federation in 1981.
Gary and Angelica di Silvestri, fabulously wealthy husband-and-wife cross country skiers from the U.S. (they have homes in New York, Montana, Miami, Italy), were given citizenship by Dominica, an island of 73,000 residents in the Lesser Antilles where the average annual temperature is 85 degrees. Gary, a hedge fund manager from Staten Island, N.Y., founded Dominica’s national ski federation last year, and both he and his wife, who is an Italian citizen, were able to amass enough Olympic qualification points by skiing — usually at the back of the pack — at small meets in Europe and the U.S.
Gary, 47, carried Dominica’s purple parrot flag in Opening Ceremonies, but the Olympics went downhill from there. He contracted acute bacterial gastroenteritis after showering and brushing his teeth with brown water. Angelica, 48, crashed into a fence during practice on the Olympic course and broke her nose. He got out of the hospital in time to start the 15K classic race but collapsed after one lap. She has had three operations on her face.
The di Silvestris did not deserve to be Olympians. Nor did they bring positive attention to Dominica after questions arose about how one can acquire a passport from the island — for a minimum of $100,000.
The International Olympic Committee began aggressively encouraging such athletic tourism in November 2012, when it entreated warm-weather countries to create Winter Olympic teams, perhaps hoping for a repeat of the Jamaican bobsledding team sensation. The IOC only requires that athletes be citizens of the country they represent. Sport federations take it from there, setting their own citizenship rules.
At the men’s giant slalom race, even skiers who finished near the bottom of the list said the qualification standard of 140 points is too easy.
“It wasn’t difficult, even when I skied off courses a lot,” said Manfred Oettl Reyes of Germany, skiing for Peru and placing 70th of 72 finishers. His father is German, his mother Peruvian, and it was her idea that he represent the motherland. Oettl Reyes said he could never hope to make the German team, even though he was a decent junior skier. He’s been to Peru twice, although he doesn’t remember, but has seen pictures of himself as a baby on his father’s back at Machu Picchu. He would like to help the country develop a ski resort in the Andes.
Like Oettl Reyes, Warren Cummings Smith of Boston would have a tough time making his national ski team. His grandmother is an Estonian immigrant. He got dual citizenship as a youngster and is using it to further his skiing ambitions today — for Estonia.
Bruno Banani is a brand of German underwear. Bruno Banani is also a luger from Tonga who changed his name from Fuahea Semi, moved to Germany and took up the sport as part of a marketing campaign. A fast learner, he made last year’s world championships and placed 32nd of 39 at the Sochi Games. India’s Shiva Keshavan trained on mountain roads and finished 37th.
Passport switching enables legitimate athletes to compete as well. Vic Wild — not the much-hyped Shaun White — became the first snowboarder to win two golds in a single Olympics — but not for his native U.S. Wild, who is from White Salmon, married snowboarder Alena Zavarzina and became a Russian citizen in 2012 after getting frustrated with the lack of funding in the U.S. for downhill snowboarding.
Short track speedskater Viktor Ahn of Russia, formerly Ahn Hyun-Soo of South Korea, felt neglected by his national team when he got injured six years ago and declared himself a free agent, offering his services to any country that would give him the best opportunity to make a comeback. U.S. coaches talked to Ahn but couldn’t grant him citizenship as quickly as Russia. A bureaucratic pity for the U.S., as Ahn was one of the stars of the Games, winning three golds and sending rapturous Russians to the rafters at Iceberg Skating Palace. It’s worked the other way, too. The U.S. expedited citizenship for ice dancer Tanith Belbin of Canada, and she and Ben Agosto won silver in 2006.
Giant slalom skier Adam Lamhamedi said being an Olympian has enabled him to appreciate and deepen his roots in Morocco, even though he’s always lived in Quebec City, Canada. He became a dual citizen, like his father. He was flagbearer for the African nation’s team of three, which includes his brother.
“I got to meet the king last year,” said Lamhamedi, who finished 47th. “I visit Morocco every summer. But it’s very hot. I’m a winter guy.”