KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — “It all started,” East Timor’s first Winter Olympian says, “as a joke.”
When Yohan Goncalves Goutt was 8 years old, on a skiing vacation in his native France, a family friend kiddingly told him that if he kept at it with the sport, one day he could make it to the Olympics.
“It stuck in my head,” Goncalves Goutt says now, “and I wanted it to become a dream come true.”
So here he is, at 19, preparing to compete as an Alpine skier in the Sochi Games, representing East Timor, where he founded the officially recognized ski federation. His race, the slalom, is Saturday night.
He sees his role in Russia as twofold: He’s an athlete, sure, but he’s also a sort of ambassador for East Timor, the impoverished Southeast Asian nation that was a Portuguese colony, was invaded by Indonesia in 1975, and became a sovereign state in 2002 after the United Nations intervened.
“In a way, I’m doing something for the Timorese. I’m helping out. I’m showing that Timor exists, and maybe some people will want to invest in Timor. And so that’s my sort of diplomatic role that I have here,” Goncalves Goutt said in an interview with The Associated Press after training Monday on a hill blanketed by thick fog.
“In the future, I would like to go back to Timor if I get sponsors after Sochi … to create sports centers. This is one of my aims, because I believe that in a country that needs to grow up, education is really important, but I think sports can really help a lot as well,” he said. “Today I’m sure that a lot of people know about Timor because of the flag that was at the [Sochi opening]) ceremony, and they just it looked up on Google, maybe, and now they know.’
Born in Paris—“Not really a ski area,” he says with a smile—to a French father, who is in the import-export business, and Timorese mother, who works full-time to help her skiing son, Goncalves Goutt carries both passports.
“My mom gave me the Timorese language, culture, history. And my dad gave me this very French thing of going skiing in the winter,” he said. “I’m just so happy today I can combine both.”
Goncalves Goutt prefers listing his dual last names with his mother’s first, because he is representing East Timor at the Olympics.
He often gets asked why he didn’t try to compete for France, instead. But Goncalves Goutt knows, first of all, how much more difficult it would have been to make that talented team, as opposed to being a team of one.
“It never crossed my mind, because it’s a way of not losing the connection with my country. I have Timorese blood,” he said, rubbing his left arm, “and I want to keep that connection.”
With daytime temperatures of about 85 degrees (30 Celsius) much of the year, East Timor is not exactly home to many skiers. The nation of more than 1 million people has been represented at the Summer Olympics; two finished marathons at the 2012 London Games, for example
Goncalves Goutt, who trained Monday wearing a red, yellow, orange and black plaid ski suit, proudly points out that he qualified for the Sochi Olympics based on his skiing results. While he’s never competed in a top-level World Cup race, he did finish 14th out of 43 entrants in a slalom in Iran last month.
Goncalves Goutt needed to pull together a US$75,000 budget to make his Olympic wish happen, and a lot of that money came out of his—and his family’s—own pockets.
In addition to giving him a chance to meet skiers he has looked up to, including American star Bode Miller, it’s also allowed Goncalves Goutt to spread the word about his mother’s homeland.
“Timor has a lot of suffering and a sad story. We can’t forget it,” he said. “But we have to move on and I hope that being in the Winter Olympic Games could make a nice story for Timor as well. And hopefully now, when people type ‘East Timor’ on Google, they won’t see all this war, all these bad things. Some positive light.”