The skier taking East Timor to the Winter Olympics
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A new flag will grace the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February. For the first time in the history of the Games, the colours of East Timor will be carried with pride by a competing athlete.
That athlete is Yohan Goutt Goncalves, who, at 19 years of age, has achieved his seemingly impossible dream of qualifying for the Olympics on behalf of the tiny Southeast Asian nation that only became an independent country in 2002.
The French-born skier secured his place at the world’s biggest winter sports spectacle in Serbia on December 29, where he achieved the minimum 140 points required by the International Ski Federation to compete in the slalom event at Sochi. He also hopes to qualify for the giant slalom in the coming weeks.
“It’s an accomplishment,” says Goutt Goncalves, though one he never doubted he could achieve. “When I first had the idea to compete in the Olympics, it wasn’t just a dream, I already saw myself there.”
‘There is more to East Timor than war’
Growing up in France with his French father and East Timorese mother, Goutt Goncalves developed a love for the slopes at an early age.
“I don’t remember it, but I’m told that when I was a baby my father put me in his backpack and took me out on the pistes.”
He put on his first pair of skis aged just two and a half at the French ski resort of Val d’Isère.
The sport quickly became an obsession and at the age of 14 Goutt Goncalves took part in his first competition. At this point, he already knew he wanted to turn his passion for skiing into his profession.
“Initially, when I told my parents that this was what I wanted to do, they told me it would be complicated and that I would have to go to live in the mountains - particularly to be part of the France team, for which you need to take part in many competitions,” he recalls.
But competing for France was not on the young skier’s agenda. Goutt Goncalves decided as a teenager he wanted to represent his mother's country.
“I wanted to go to the Olympics representing East Timor as it would be a double experience,” he says. “Of course there is the competition, but also the chance to play the role of diplomat. It’s a brand new country, only formed in 2002 and still developing. I particularly want to show that there is more to East Timor than war.”
The former Portuguese colony was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and nearly 200,000 people were killed in the 24-year occupation that followed.
It was during this period that Goutt Goncalves’s mother, along with several other family members, fled the country.
“She was 12 when she left,” he says. “She became a political refugee in Australia and did all her schooling there. Afterwards, she took a year out to travel. She came to Paris where she met my father and never went back.”
Despite growing up thousands of kilometres away, Goutt Goncalves maintains strong ties to the country of his ancestors and visits every year. Last summer, he even had the honour of meeting East Timor’s President Taur Matan Ruak.
More and more people in the island nation are beginning to take note of the skier’s career, even if many of them have never so much as seen snow before, let alone understand the sport.
“It’s still a bit complicated to explain what I do in Timor – the word ‘ski’ doesn’t exist in the local dialect. People don’t know that it’s a sport, in the newspapers they call it ‘snow skating’,” he says with amusement.
Though Sochi is just a few weeks away, Goutt Goncalves has no pre-Games nerves. Ranked 3606th in the world and having benefited from a qualification system designed to give smaller nations a chance to compete, he knows he has no chance of winning a medal.
“Just getting to the finish would be nice,” he says with a laugh. “I will not come first. But I have a friend, Samir Azzimani, who represented Morocco at the Vancouver Games (in 2010) and came 44th in the slalom. I would love to do better than that so that Timor is ahead of Morocco!”
By participating in the world’s most prestigious sporting event, the young skier’s main goal is simply to “put East Timor on the map”.
A business administration student at a Paris university, Goutt Goncalves already has many future projects in mind for his country, the poorest in Southeast Asia.
"At the end of the ski season, if sponsors are willing to help me, I'd love to open sports centres for young people in Timor,” he says.
“They need to be liberated from their bad memories of the past. We should not forget, of course, but we must move forward.
“Sport is a good opportunity to get out of this downward spiral.”