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Togo's Mathilde Amivi Petitjean crosses the finish line to complete the women's 10K classical-style cross-country race at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
Togo's Mathilde Amivi Petitjean crosses the finish line to complete the women's 10K classical-style cross-country race at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

cross-country skiing

Blazing a path for warm-weather countries Add to ...

When Roberto Carcelen took up cross-country skiing, few people in his home country of Peru knew anything about the sport and almost no one watched the Winter Olympics.

Now that he is Peru’s first Winter Olympian, Carcelen has been followed around Sochi by a Peruvian television crew and the Games are being broadcast across the country. “It’s amazing,” he said Friday after finishing last in the 15-kilometre race, nearly half an hour behind the winner, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, who waited to shake his hand.

There are a record 87 countries participating in the Sochi Olympics, and, while most of the medals have been won by winter-sport powerhouses such as Canada, the United States, Norway and Russia, there are plenty of athletes such as Carcelen representing countries where people have never heard of skis or skates. For many of these athletes, just getting to the Games and competing has been an accomplishment.

Take 19-year-old Mathilde-Amivi Petitjean. She and one other athlete are representing Togo in Sochi, the first time the West African country has ever had participants in the Winter Games. Petitjean’s ties to her homeland are tenuous. She moved to the French Alps with her parents at the age of two and visits Togo about once a year. She took up cross-country skiing during a school outing and has been competing in races for the past few years.

Her road to Sochi started on Facebook. Last year, she posted a message on the Facebook page of the Togolese Ski Federation that eventually led to an invitation to compete for the country at the Sochi Games. Petitjean managed to meet the Olympic standard, barely, and she finished 68th out of 75 competitors in the 10-km classic cross-country race in Sochi, nearly 10 minutes behind the winner, Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland.

She’s hoping that just her presence might inspire other Africans to think about winter sports. “It’s cool and I think African countries are very happy for me because I participated at the Winter Olympics,” she said in an interview. “Everybody is very happy. It was very difficult but I’m happy because I finished this race.”

Her fellow Togolese competitor in Sochi, Alessia Dipol, was born in Italy but acquired Togolese citizenship to compete in Sochi in slalom.

Petitjean plans to return to school in France after the Olympics and study sports management. And she’s hoping to compete in the next Winter Games in South Korea. “People now look at the Winter Games and see that Africans can ski,” she said.

Carcelen was introduced to cross-country skiing seven years ago by his American wife, Kate. They met online and he moved to Seattle, where she works for Microsoft. He got a job at the tech company as well and soon they were spending most of their free time skiing. Carcelen got good enough to compete in local and national races, and by 2010 he managed to earn enough points in the International Ski Federation’s rankings to qualify for the Vancouver Olympics, the first Peruvian to compete in the Winter Games. He finished 94th in the 15-km event in Vancouver and became an instant celebrity.

The Sochi Games are his second, and for the first time the Winter Olympics are being broadcast across Peru. Carcelen was disappointed to finish last, blaming part of his poor showing on a rib injury he suffered after a fall during training. But he is thrilled that people in Peru are finally paying attention to winter sports. He’s started a roller-ski program, and the country’s Olympic Committee is looking into a snowboard project for promising youngsters. There is also a new skating rink in Lima and some figure skating programs.

“We are trying to grow winter sports, but this is not a big deal in our country,” said Jose Quinones, head of the Peruvian Olympic Committee. The country has two other athletes in Sochi, slalom competitors Ornella and Manfred Reyes. They are siblings who were born and raised in Germany and claimed Peruvian citizenship through their mother.

Carcelen, who is 43 and won’t be competing in another Olympics, said even though his track record at the Games isn’t very good, he is proud with what he has accomplished. “The point was just to shine light on this for kids who need something like this,” he said in an interview after his race. “People hear stories like mine and get inspired by them. More people in Peru are watching the Olympics for sure, and I think my story is going to help open doors in the future.”

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