Why you should care
Because these warm-weather warriors are well on their way to the 2018 Winter Olympics.
As 28-year-old Thời Đình Trịnh straps on his snowboard, it’s obvious he’s not your garden-variety athlete. He’s shirtless and ungracefully tall, and he’s guzzling gallons of water. It’s sizzling outside, and the slopes he’s about to shred are covered with a slightly different kind of powder — the golden sand dunes of Mũi Né, just off the southeastern coast of Vietnam. Trịnh, the country’s first professional snowboarder, has never seen snow.
Safe to say, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Trịnh is the latest in a long line of sun-dwelling athletes sliding toward an improbable Winter Olympics dream. Newly inducted into the frigid world of Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing and snowboarding, these tropical warriors from Vietnam all hold a vast sports repertoire of everything from kitesurfing to inline skating. But now they are boldly dipping their toes in the snow, joining the world’s estimated 125 million skiers and snowboarders, whose ranks are growing due to emerging markets in Asia, according to SnowSports Industries America.
The move toward lower temperatures may seem downright masochistic, but in the years since the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, there have been a record number of tropical nations throwing their players into the cold, cold ring. “You need a mind of steel to cope with the harsh weather,” says 19-year-old Vietnamese Alpine skier Đạt Tiến Phạm. You also need the help of government-funded programs like South Korea’s Dream Program, whose winter sports academies are filled with warm-weather athletes training in otherwise inaccessible snow and ice sports like figure skating and speed skating. Participants come from every steamy corner of the world, including Togo, Uruguay, Cambodia, Syria and other places where boiling temperatures could easily break the thermometer.
Talented athletes from hot countries can train in cold countries and then represent their home countries at the Olympics.
Helen Lenskyj, University of Toronto
But as unusual as these misfit athletes may seem, they follow in the footsteps of others who once were considered fish out of water. Back in 1928, a five-man Mexican bobsled team carved up the narrow, twisting track of St. Moritz, Switzerland, and became the first athletes from a balmy country to compete in the Winter Olympics. In the following decades, others joined in — including Puerto Rico, Fiji and the Philippines.
Then the Jamaican bobsled team, the most famous of all heat-thriving athletes, debuted at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics with flocks of fans and reporters. Years later, they even inspired a Disney biopic, Cool Runnings. “There’s absolutely no reason why an athlete from a warm-weather country can’t become a great curler,” says David Wallechinsky, the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. And despite the fact that no tropical nation has ever won a medal, these trailblazers paved the way for plucky underdogs like Trịnh and Phạm, inspiring them to pick up a pair of skis. “We are the pioneers” for Vietnam, says Trịnh, a seasoned skateboarder.
True, but I can’t help but gawk at the nasty scars and bruises that dot his torso and grimace at how he’s skidding down the sand with the finesse of a horse on roller skates. The odds are plenty high, notes Wallechinsky: “You can practice on sand dunes all you want, [but] you’re not going to gain all the skill and time on the snow [that you’d get] if you came from a winter country.”
Sure, anybody can run, jump, box or wrestle. But with winter sports, you need more than just extra layers, says Wallechinsky. Of the many hurdles that these upstart athletes must clear, expensive equipment, a chronic lack of practice facilities and the dearth of deep-pocketed sponsors are the toughest to overcome, says University of Toronto Olympic critic Helen Lenskyj, who penned the book Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics, and Activism. But thanks to “globalization, talented athletes from hot countries can train in cold countries and then represent their home countries at the Olympics,” she says.
Of course, people like Vietnam’s Mạnh Đức Nguyễn are not blind to the barriers. The 28-year-old cross-country ski team captain knows that “the ball is not in our court.” If you can get past the mixed sports metaphor, he has a good point to make: Little guys like Vietnam are all the more easy to root for, because for every Shaun White, there’s a quiet, dark-horse competitor who goes on to shape an entire sport and fashion creative ways to train under less-than-ideal conditions.
By this point, I’ve watched the snowboarding Trịnh bear the brunt of multiple tumbles down the dunes, eating mouthfuls of sand along the way. But all Trịnh aims to do, he tells me, is to put Vietnam and other snow-less nations on the map. He just wants a fighting chance. That, and a tougher tush.