ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Many a true word is spoken in jest and East Timor’s first Winter Olympian, Alpine skier Yohan Goncalves Goutt, is a case in point.
What started as a joke - competing at the Sochi Olympics for a tropical country whose language Tetum does not even have a word for skiing - has turned into something much more serious.
On Saturday, on Russian snow and under floodlights, the Paris-born skier will make his Olympic debut in the slalom.
Son of a French father and Timorese mother, who was a child refugee to Australia from the southeast Asian country also known as Timor Leste, Goncalves Goutt started skiing in the Alps at the age of two.
“When I was eight a family friend called Bill made a joke and said ‘Oh, this kid one day will go to the Olympics,’” the 19-year-old told Reuters in an interview during a rest day in the Alpine program.
“And in my head it just stayed and matured and then became a real story.
“So when I was 10 I told my mum I wanted to represent Timor at the Winter Olympics. My mum supported me and we created the Timor ski federation. It took a long time, roughly five years.”
A former Portuguese colony northwest of the Australian city of Darwin, East Timor declared its independence in 1975 but was then invaded by Indonesia. One of the poorest countries in the world, it only became a sovereign state in 2002.
To get to Sochi, he has had to raise $75,000 from friends and family: “It’s been hard but I’m here,” he said.
Goncalves Goutt might have represented Australia - since he also has that passport - and is fluent in Portuguese as well as French and English but had no doubt about which country he really wanted to compete for.
He goes there every year, spending about a month with family, and has begun to get recognized. For those who have no idea what a slalom is, and maybe not snow either, he takes pictures with him.
His decision, he says, is all about promoting his mother’s country, presenting a positive image to the world and giving something back.
“After the Olympic Games, depending on if I get sponsors and financially I can do it, I would like to open sport centers in Timor,” explained the skier, whose surname emphasizes his Timorese roots by putting his mother’s name first.
“I really think that for developing a country, sports is really important, especially to develop a dream. I would like to give this opportunity to a lot of Timorese kids and young adults.”
Skiing would not be an option, but he is thinking more of soccer and endurance sports, such as cycling and long distance running, in a country that has previously sent athletes to Summer Games.
Goncalves Goutt has a flag in his room signed by the president of East Timor, and Timor Leste written on his team outfit with red, yellow, orange and black colors.
His mother, one of a family of nine that includes a brother serving as a government minister, is in Sochi as Chef de Mission.
The skier has taken time to talk to other athletes and Russians about the country, many of whom were either unaware of its existence or knew of it only in terms of war and suffering.
“If you type in Timor Leste on Google, you just see the wars and all this bad (stuff),” he said. “We can’t forget it but we have to move forwards with a nicer future. I hope sports will be part of it.”
Tracey Vince, an Australian who serves as the Timorese Olympic attache and whose husband made the fateful joke after being ‘run ragged’ during a skiing holiday, said the reaction back home had been highly supportive.
“In Tatum, they don’t even have a word for skiing. They call it snow-skating. They haven’t had any concept of what it is,” she explained.
“There’s been no financial support from the government either. But they are very proud of him.”
How many of Goncalves Goutt’s compatriots get to see him ski, including a good many of his cousins and uncles, remains an open question with even the opening ceremony not shown on television there. But he remains hopeful.
“The president promised me that the day of my race they’ll put up a big screen TV on the main meeting place in Dili,” he said, promising to do his best.
“I’ve been here, I went to the opening ceremony, I will start. That’s the main thing for me. My aim is to finish, and we all have aims ... I might not succeed but I am aiming to go down and be as fast as I can. Full power.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford