MADRID, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Coming into the Sochi Games as junior snowboard cross world champion has upped the pressure on Spaniard Lucas Eguibar to put an end to the Iberian nation’s Winter Olympics medal drought.
A global powerhouse in high-profile sports like soccer, tennis and motor racing, Spain have a mere two Winter Games medals, won by slalom skiing siblings Francisco and Blanca Fernandez Ochoa in 1972 and 1992.
The lack of success is surprising for a country that has numerous ski resorts in the northern Pyrenees mountains, as well as in the Sierra Nevada range in the south and close to the capital Madrid.
Eguibar, who turns 20 on Sunday and will be competing at his first Olympics, is unfazed by what for many would be a hefty responsibility.
He is part of a 20-strong Spanish team at Sochi, with European figure skating champion Javier Fernandez seen as a strong medal prospect.
“I have done well in several races and that’s why people are saying I have a chance of a medal,” Eguibar told Reuters by telephone.
“And I always say the same thing: I am going to do my job and if it comes off we are in with a chance.”
In snowboard cross, which was first introduced at the Turin Games in 2006, boarders race down a winding course dotted with jumps and banked turns.
Eguibar’s recent success has helped raise his profile in Spain, where soccer coverage takes up most of the space in the sports newspapers, but has not much helped ease the difficulties he and other winter sports athletes face in securing funding.
“The results always mean people are going to follow you and lately that has picked up,” Eguibar said. “But what would help is having a bigger presence in the media.”
Spain’s prolonged economic downturn has prompted deep cuts in spending on public services and the nation’s sports council has slashed subsidies to sports federations already struggling to make ends meet.
The Spanish winter sports federation’s budget has been halved to 1.5 million euros from 3 million five years ago, according to a spokesman.
“The cuts have affected us massively,” Eguibar said.
For example, unlike most of their rivals, the Spanish boarders cannot afford a “ski man” meaning they have to spend hours before each race preparing their boards, he added.
“The landscape is tough,” said Eguibar, who has no private sponsors of his own and lives with his mother.
He was awarded a 12,000 euros ($16,300) grant from the national government in 2012 but has yet to see any of the money for 2013. He also gets cash from the Basque Country’s regional administration, 11,000 euros last year.
Eguibar took up snowboarding at the age of 14 and won the junior world championships in Erzurum, Turkey in March 2013, the same month he secured his first podium finish in a World Cup race, a third place in Arosa, Switzerland.
Last month he competed at the prestigious X Games in the United States but was eliminated in the quarter-finals after a collision with another boarder.
Defending Olympic snowboard cross champion Seth Wescott, who also won gold at Turin, is not competing this time and Eguibar named Wescott’s American compatriots Nate Holland and Trevor Jacob, Austrian Markus Schairer and Italian Omar Visintin as his strongest rivals.
Despite the intense competition, boarders form a close-knit group which tends to resist change like ditching their traditional baggy snowboarders’ attire in favour of tighter, more aerodynamic suits.
“We want to protect snowboarding’s image and we are all good friends on the circuit,” Eguibar said. “I am happy to be going to the Games and I just hope to have fun.”
$1 = 0.7353 euros Editing by Peter Rutherford