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February 16, 2013

Jamaica Edges Haiti in Caribbean Slalom Duel

by Reuters

Like Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt, Jamaica's Michael Elliott Williams is surrounded by photographers and autograph hunters when he finishes a race and even performs the famous arrow celebration.

However, Jamaica's one competitor at the world skiing championships, can only dream of exerting the dominance in his event that compatriot Bolt does on the track.

Williams finished the qualifying run for Sunday's slalom in a sedate three minutes 39.48 seconds, almost twice the time taken by leader Victor Malmstrom of Finland.

A former American footballer who had not worn a pair of skis until 18 months ago, Williams gingerly made his way down the steep and icy Reiteralm with its dizzying vertical drop of 219 meters to finish 43rd of the 45 who completed the course.

​​Yet, he still won the contest that mattered as Haitian rivals Jean-Pierre Roy and Benoit Etoc took the last two places, enabling Williams to lay claim to the title of top Caribbean slalomist.

Roy, 49, and almost certainly the only grandfather hurling himself down the icy pistes of Schladming, was 14 seconds slower.

At one point, the charismatic Haitian was in danger of being overtaken by one of the many course officials skiing down after him.

Race faster

Nevertheless, both competitors were proud to get down.

"I think all of us can race a lot faster than we did today but because it's so icy and choppy, you want to make it to the end,'' Williams told Reuters.

"Think about it, more than 80 guys did not finish the race, that's a lot.''

Competitors from unlikely skiing nations such as India, South Africa, Brazil, Peru, Albania, Netherlands, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Lebanon were also among the 139 starters in a race far removed from the horn-blowing crowds of the main course.

The top 25 qualified for Sunday's race and the chance to share the piste with the likes of American triple gold medallist Ted Ligety and Austria's Marcel Hirscher.

Some countries, like India and Jamaica, have ambitious operations with coaching staff and pro-active federations while others, like Peru's German-based outfit, are little more than family affairs battling to get official recognition from local authorities.

"The ministry doesn't reply to us for no apparent reason and neither do the Olympic committee,'' said Rossana Reyes Davila, the exasperated mother of Peruvian skier Manfred Ottel Reyes. ``Without a federation we can't do anything. We are on our own.''

Cool runnings

Caribbean winter sports teams immediately conjure up thoughts of Cool Runnings, the film about the Jamaica bobsleighers who, against the odds, took part in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

"That's it in a nutshell,'' said Canada-raised Williams, who lists Ghana's "Snow Leopard'', skier Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, as another inspiration.

"I saw them do that and I was really proud of what they did for Jamaica, then I watched other skiers such as Alberto Tomba and Pirmin Zurbriggen.

 ''I thought I'd like to do something for Jamaica and be like Tomba and Zurbriggen one day and, 25 years later, here I am at the world championships, skiing. It's a dream."

 He explained: ''I thought that I was a good athlete and if I put my mind to it I can do it. My coaches think if I train constantly, they believe that I can make it to the Olympics."

Roy, who was raised and lives in France, is experienced by comparison, having taken part in the world championships in Germany two years ago when he acted as federation president, team captain and lone skier all in one.

Since then, his team has expanded, he has back-up staff and a fellow skier and is aiming for next year's Winter Games in Sochi.

''It will be the first time for Haiti to have a Winter Olympic team so it is very important,`` said Roy, adding he wanted to create publicity for the country that was not about natural disasters, poverty and political violence.

 ''It is something very special because I talk with all the stars, I talk to [Aksel Lund] Svindal, to Ligety, to the French, I tell them about Haiti and they say, 'We are proud you are here'," he said.

Roy, who is based in Paris, has discovered three skiers of Haitian descent who live in mountain areas, practise the sport regularly and could compete at a higher level.

''I think it is possible to have one guy or one lady in the top 100 in 10 years, that's my goal,`` he said.