Winter Olympics 2018: Pyeongchang’s unlikely Olympic heroes

Winter Olympics hopefuls Hannah Brandt, Victor Santos and Sabrina Simander
Brandt, Santos and Simander are names you might not be familiar with, but they could be a big hit in Pyeongchang

Norway, the USA and Germany – the all-time Winter Olympics medal table is dominated by nations whose athletes grew up a snowball’s throw from a ski resort or with sports like biathlon in their blood.

The 2018 Pyeongchang Games are not purely about the medal contenders from the traditional giants, though.

The South Korean showpiece will also feature a number of athletes whose journey to the Games has been less conventional or straightforward.

Winter Olympics 2018: Pyeongchang’s unlikely Olympic heroes
Winter Olympics 2018: Pyeongchang’s unlikely Olympic heroes

BBC Sport takes a look at the back-stories of some of the more unlikely Olympians in Pyeongchang.

‘Every time I ski I feel like I die a little inside’

Tonga's Pita Taufatofua
Pita Taufatofua took up cross-country skiing following a disappointing first-round defeat in the taekwondo in Rio

Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua was the talk of the summer Games in Rio in 2016 after his striking native outfit at the opening ceremony went viral.

Two years on from that bare-chested and oiled-up appearance, the Tongan will swap the taekwondo mat for cross-country skis to become one of the most unlikely double Olympians of all time.

Taufatofua, 34, had not even seen snow until a couple of years ago, and following his Rio exposure he had acting offers from Hollywood and potential modelling deals galore.

However, the Tongan was not motivated by fame but by a desire to find his “next big challenge” in something “completely impossible”. Cue an attempt to qualify for the Winter Olympics in cross-country skiing – something he eventually managed in the final qualification race in Iceland last month.

“Every time I ski I feel like I die a little inside,” he says of the event. “The burn starts and then you hold the burn for an hour or more. I still haven’t had a race where I felt completely happy in terms of no pain.”

‘A black skier always gets looked at’

Kenya's Sabrina Simander
Sabrina Simader started skiing when she was just three years old as her step-father, Josef, owned a ski lift in Austria

Sabrina Simader is used to turning heads – after all, elite black skiers are traditionally few and far between – but the 19-year-old alpine skier will become only Kenya’s second Winter Olympian in Pyeongchang.

Typically, when skiers from smaller nations compete at the Winter Games they do so in the ‘safer’ technical events of slalom or giant slalom.

Not so for Simader. Born in Kenya but raised in Austria, she skis in speed events such as the super-G, where competitors regular top 60mph.

“At the beginning, people looked at me. OK, a black skier always gets looked at – but when your performances get better and you improve, you win them over,” she said in January.

She has had to rely on sponsors and crowdfunding to get her to South Korea. She claims her relationship with the Kenyan National Olympics Committee has been “difficult” – something she attributes to a lack of awareness about the sport, the equipment and huge costs attached to it.

‘Rabbits escaping lions’

Akwasi Frimpong
Akwasi Frimpong will become Ghana’s first Olympic skeleton athlete

Temperatures do not drop below 20C in Ghana but that hasn’t stopped Akwasi Frimpong earning his place at a Winter Olympics in which the weather has been 20C below freezing at times.

Frimpong, who will turn 32 in the first week of the Games, was born in Ghana, where his grandmother brought him and nine other children up in a one-roomed house.

He moved to the Netherlands at the age of eight to live with his mother and the former Dutch junior sprint champion had a documentary made about him in 2010 called De theorie van het Konjin (The Rabbit Theory).

“My former sprint coach, Sammy Monsels, talks about the analogy of a rabbit in a cage, ready to escape from a lion,” Frimpong explains. “I am that rabbit, and I have escaped the lions [of my past].

“I am no longer being eaten by all the things around my life.”

Brazil's Victor Santos
Victor Santos will attempt to be the first Brazilian to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympic Games

From Brazilian slum to Pyeongchang’s slopes

The icy winter of Pyeongchang is a far cry from the summer version in Rio in 2016 – a vibrant Games for which many of the venues were a stone’s throw from the city’s favelas.

Cross-country skier Victor Santos learned to roller ski on the streets of one of Sao Paulo’s favelas in a social project run by two-time winter Olympian Leandro Ribela.

Football-mad Brazil have unsurprisingly yet to win a medal in their seven previous winter Games appearances, and Santos’ choice of sport has raised eyebrows at home.

“Some people have prejudice, they don’t accept a different sport,” Santos says of the Brazilian’s attitude to cross-country.

Koreans combine

Sisters Hannah and Marissa Brandt, who play for United States and Unified Korea respectively at the 2018 Winter Olympics
Marissa, right, received a phone call asking her to join South Korea’s team, which started her journey to Pyeongchang

The combined Korean ice hockey team is about as unlikely as you can get given the two nations are still technically at war.

The heightened tensions in the Korean peninsula during the Pyeongchang build-up at times led to speculation that the Games might not take place. In September, France suggested they could boycott the Games if safety couldn’t be guaranteed.

Six months later, North and South Korea will compete together at the same Olympics in a women’s ice hockey tournament full of improbable storylines.

They include the case of the Brandt sisters. The American team features Hannah while her sister Marissa – adopted from South Korea – will play for the Korean team. The two siblings were born 11 months apart.

Cool Runnings: The sequel

Jamaica's Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian and Carrie Russell
Jamaica has competed at the Winter Olympics for 30 years, first taking part in 1988

Thirty years after the country’s men made history – and inspired a Hollywood film – by appearing at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Jamaica will have their first women’s bobsleigh team in South Korea.

While the Jamaican men famously crashed out in Calgary, the women’s class of 2018 are targeting a top-10 finish, having finished seventh at December’s Winterberg World Cup.

The Jamaicans are not the only women making history in the bobsleigh – Nigeria’s inaugural Winter Olympians will field the first African sled at the Games.

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‘We’re all goofballs’ – meet the first African bobsleigh team at a Winter Olympics

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