ROSA KHUTOR, Russia, Feb 8 (Reuters) - At the age of 55, Mexican skier Hubertus von Hohenlohe is limbering up for his sixth Winter Olympics - and he won’t be difficult to spot.
In the 30 years since he first competed at Sarajevo in 1984, von Hohenlohe has made a few concessions to age - to avoid worrying his mother, he has dropped downhill racing in favour of the more technical and less dangerous slalom.
But his outfits get steadily more outrageous. In Vancouver four years ago, he appeared as a pistolero; this time he will sport a specially designed black ski-suit imprinted with the white frills, red belt and necktie of a mariachi folk musician.
“I think people like me keep the Olympic spirit up,” von Hohenlohe told Reuters in an interview. “It’s cool to be still at it and be able to have kept youth a little longer than most people would probably try to do so.”
The son of German aristocrats, von Hohenlohe was born in Mexico, where his father was building up the Volkwagen car business. He grew up speaking Spanish and German, and discovered skiing after moving to Austria as a child.
“There the winters were grey, dark and long, and my only kind of escape was to the mountains. When I saw ski races, I thought: this is what I have to do.”
With dual Mexican and Liechtenstein nationality, he lives in Europe but is proud to represent the country of his birth.
At Friday night’s opening ceremony of the Sochi Games in Russia, he once again carried Mexico’s flag - not surprisingly, as he is its only representative.
“It’s a big country, it has 100 million people, so it’s important that Mexico is on the map, also in the Winter Olympics,” said von Hohenlohe.
Tanned with dark wavy hair, he cuts an eye-catching figure as he grooves his way across a square where disco music is blaring out in Krasnaya Polyana, in the mountains above Sochi, and poses for photos with visitors.
While it can be “just a little lonely” in a team of one, he says he enjoys good camaraderie with the other skiers, most of whom weren’t born when he first took part in the Olympics.
“I hung out yesterday with (Norway‘s) Axel Svindal, who actually complains that I don’t do downhill any more. But I told him that my mother doesn’t want me to do it and they also made the qualification criteria so difficult that I can’t really qualify. But it’s cool, they’re nice with me.”
Von Hohenlohe insists that he’s “no Olympic tourist” and will be competing hard through the twists and turns of the slalom course, not just snowploughing down.
He satisfied the slalom qualifying criteria, and over the years has achieved some respectable results, his best being 26th in 1984. He says a top 50 place would be a good result.
So what about that mariachi costume?
”I don’t know why it took me 30 years to come up with it. We decided to do something very elegant and original this time and very folkloric, and I like music. So we thought mariachis would be the right ambassadors for a Mexican who likes to sing and who likes to ski and look good at night.
“It’s worn with a sombrero when you sing. But the sombrero would be maybe a bit too hindering coming down the slalom gates.”
Despite being one of the oldest Winter Olympians and a member of a select group to compete at six different Games, von Hohenlohe says he is not looking to go on and on in search of a place in the record books. So Sochi may be his swansong.
“I actually don’t think I‘m going to aim for the next one, otherwise my claim to fame will be to be the oldest Winter Olympian ever, and that’s kind of embarrassing. This should be the last,” he said.
“Unless some scientist uses me as a guinea pig to stay young for some time - then I would accept the offer and I would try to see if it’s possible to qualify next time also.” (Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Martyn Herman)