Skip to main content

Cheyenne Goh of Singapore carries the national flag during the opening ceremony on Feb. 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS

From a distance, you might think Cheyenne Goh was on the ice for Canada. Her short-track speed-skating suit is red and white. The stars on her sleeves could, at first glance, be mistaken for maple leaves.

And, of course, her family lives in Alberta, where she has spent most of her life. But Goh has come to the Pyeongchang Olympics to represent Singapore, the first time that country has sent an athlete to the Winter Olympics. She carried the country's flag into the opening ceremonies on Friday.

It's "a huge honour," she says. "It's a pretty big moment for winter sports in Singapore, so I think that's super cool to be part of."

Story continues below advertisement

Goh is not the only person from Canada creating big Olympic moments for other countries.

Of the six countries making their Winter Olympics debut this year, flag-bearers for three have close ties to Canada. Eritrean downhill skier Shannon Abeda was born in Fort McMurray and now lives in Calgary. Malaysian figure skater Julian Yee moved to Barrie in 2016 to train. And Goh, who moved from Singapore to Canada when she was four, lives in Edmonton.

Canada's delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics is the biggest ever, with 225 athletes.

But the Canadian footprint in the Games extends much further. Canadians are playing on South Korean hockey teams, skiing for Morocco and Mexico and coaching Chinese curlers, Italian speed skaters and South Korean bobsledders. Of 11 athletes representing African nations, two were born in Canada. A third now trains in Canada.

"It basically shows that Canada is such a great multicultural country," said Helmut Spiegl, a former Canadian men's national team coach who is himself an immigrant from Austria. He is currently in Pyeongchang with Abeda.

"I think it's a tribute to our country," he said.

Some of those competing under foreign flags have been recruited by Olympics organizations in countries eager to take advantage of a "B qualification" system, which provides one male and one female quota spot to every Olympic member nation, provided athletes meet certain criteria.

Story continues below advertisement

Others have used the same rules to make a place for themselves.

Abeda was three when he began skiing at Fort McMurray's Vista Ridge park (a tiny hill with outsized success: at least three Pyeongchang Olympians gained experience on its slopes). His father had fled the Eritrean War of Independence and become a geotechnical engineer in the energy industry.

The family moved to Calgary when Abeda was seven, and a coach challenged him to see what he could do. Speed thrilled him, and "then when I was able to fully carve the ski, I really liked being able to push that limit," he said.

The idea of skiing for his parents' birth country came first from friends making a joke. But Abeda had visited Eritrea when he was 6 and grew up eating dishes like injera, shiro and ga'at. He spent summers bouncing between weddings in the small but close-knit Eritrean diaspora.

So it didn't seem completely preposterous when he decided to seriously explore skiing for Eritrea at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympics.

Eritrea had a National Olympic Committee, but no winter federation, nor licensing under the International Ski Federation. All of that had to be created for him; he remains Eritrea's sole registered winter athlete. In Pyeongchang, he will compete in giant slalom and slalom.

Story continues below advertisement

His path has been an expensive one without the backing of a wealthy Olympic program like Canada's. Eritrea has provided little money; his family has been his main source of support, including the hundreds of toques with Eritrean colours knit by his mom.

His unique status has nonetheless attracted attention in Eritrea, where he was recognized on the street during a visit in 2014. The country is ruled by president Isaias Afwerki, whose "totalitarian practices" have been criticized by the United Nations. Human Rights Watch says "Eritrea's respect for human rights obligations remains abysmal."

Afwerki's interest embodies one of the risks of competing for another country: the United Nations has criticized the African dictator's "totalitarian practices," while Human Rights Watch says "Eritrea's respect for human rights obligations remains abysmal."

Abeda says he just wants to represents Eritreans, "and I'm very proud to be able to carry that flag for them."

Though he has little hope of stepping on the podium himself, he wants to spread love for snow among Eritreans, particularly immigrants.

If that seems unlikely, consider the unexpected ways international sport co-operation can work.

Goh's coach is Chun Lee-kyung, a four-time gold medallist for South Korea. Chun credits some of her success to 10 months she spent training in Montreal as a teen; she is now living in Singapore, coaching a skater from Canada who is competing back in South Korea under the Singaporean flag.

Goh still has some "bad habits she picked up from hockey," Chun says. But Goh's participation at Pyeongchang "could be a milestone" for skating in southeast Asia, Chun says, enthusing about new rinks that have opened in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

Goh, who is ranked 37th in the world in the 1,500 metres, knows a medal is not likely. On Sunday, she joined the Korean team for a practice skate, circling the ice behind Lim Hyo-jun, who had won South Korea's first gold medal the night before.

"It was kind of scary," she said. "I'm pretty outclassed."

But she has made it to the Olympics, and is just "happy that I've come here. I don't need to be top three or anything like that."

Two of North Korea's most senior officials were sat directly behind South Korea's president during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Games, which have provided some respite from the tense relations between the two countries. Reuters
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said Abeda was competing in super G and alpine combined. In fact, he is competing in giant slalom and slalom. This version has been corrected.
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter