The Olympic Games are never just about the sport. That might sound silly, given it represents the peak of many athletes’ careers. But it is the athletes themselves that make the games truly great. From the all-time legends of the sport like Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst who owns 11 Olympic medals, to the cult heroes like British ski-jumper Michael Edwards, better known as Eddie ‘The Eagle’, it is the Olympians who uphold and embody the Olympic spirit – and make fans fall in love with the Winter Games.
This year, there is no shortage of amazing athletes from around the world. Here are some to watch out for.
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JAMAICA’S BOBSLED TEAM
The Jamaican bobsled team is back and better than ever. The country made its debut at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics with an iconic four-man bobsled team, which inspired the classic Disney film ‘Cool Runnings’. Since then, Jamaica has had at least one athlete at the games except for 2006 – still a remarkably impressive record for the island nation.
After missing out on qualifying for the four-man bobsleigh in 2018 by just one place, the country is back in the division for the first time since 1998. They will also compete in the two-man bobsleigh competition, as well as in the inaugural women’s monobob tournament.
But despite not owning their own bobsleighs (which cost around $140,000 USD), the country’s top athletes are no joke.
“We’re more than just a movie,” says Shanwayne Stephens, pilot of both the four-man and two-man teams.
“We want to show we’re actually fierce competitors and we’re out there to put on a really good performance at the Games.”
The team has been coached by members of that legendary Calgary team in the past two seasons. But British-based Stephens was forced to turn to unusual training methods during the coronavirus pandemic – pushing his fiance’s Mini Cooper down the street.
The UK’s Queen Elizabeth II is even a fan, with Stephens sharing a video call with the queen.
“Well, I suppose that’s one way to train,” Her Majesty said with a smile and a laugh.
Stephens claims: “I think she’s now a big Jamaican bobsleigh fan. I said I’ll send her a signed T-shirt.”
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But the country is also getting its first-ever alpine skier in Benjamin Alexander, a former DJ who performed at the famous Burning Man festival 10 years running and also boasts an Electrical Engineering degree. He only took up skiing in 2015 and has no full-time coach.
But in a nice full-circle moment, the 38-year-old is being mentored by Dudley Stokes – one of the original members of that ‘Cool Runnings’ team.
THE SURPRISE PACKETS
Jamaica isn’t the only surprise name on the list of countries competing. Island nation Haiti and desert country Saudi Arabia are both making their Winter Games debuts. American Samoa, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Virgin Islands are all back in the games after missing 2018 – and none of those countries have appeared more than five times in Winter Olympics history.
OLDIE BUT A GOODIE
German speed skater Claudia Pechstein is heading into her eighth Winter Olympics in Beijing this year – the first woman to compete in that many games and just the second-ever athlete after Kasai Noriaki of Japan.
She’s bagged nine Olympic medals overall, including five golds, since first competing for East Germany in 1992 – long before the Berlin Wall came down.
She’ll turn 50 two days after the closing ceremony, and what better way to celebrate than with a medal!
But she’s not the oldest athlete in Winter Olympics history. Cheryl Bernard was 51 when she set the women’s record while competing for Canada in curling in 2018.
And Sweden’s Carl August Kronlund is the oldest ever athlete at the Winter Games, competing in curling in 1924 – the first-ever Winter Games – at the ripe age of 58 years and 155 days.
On the other end of the age spectrum is 15-year-old Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) figure skater Kamila Valieva – who despite her age is a favourite for Olympic gold. She boasts three world records – the highest women’s free skate score ever seen (185.29), the highest women’s combined total score (272.71), and the highest short program score (90.45).
She’ll face off against 16-year-old Alysa Liu of Team USA in a showdown that makes me feel old just thinking about it.
But that pair don’t come close to the youngest-ever Winter Olympians. That record is owned by Cecilia College of Great Britain, who competed in 1932 at just 11 years and 73 days old and finished a brilliant eighth. She would come back four years later to claim silver.
Incredibly, there have been FOUR 11-year-old girls in Winter Olympic history.
On the men’s side, France’s Alain Giletti was just 12 years and 162 days when he competed in figure skating in 1952.
Those records are unlikely to be broken, even if the Olympics doesn’t officially have a restriction on competitors’ ages. The global governing bodies of most sports have their own age minimums – like the International Skating Union (ISU), which governs figure skating, speed skating, and other ice skating sports, and requires competitors to be 15 years old to compete in professional competitions.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
There is a simply staggering number of Winter Olympians who must share the limelight with a relative – too many to name them all here!
Sisters Sophie (Moguls) and Gabi (Aerials) Ash are the first Australian sisters to compete at the same Winter Olympics.
Britain has two sister acts in freestyle skiing, with Izzy and Zoe Atkin and Leonie and Makayla Gerken Schofield in freestyle skiing, plus brothers Farrell and Niall Treacy in the short track speed skating.
The Gerken Schofield sisters were also nearly joined by Leonie’s twin brother Tom, who just missed selection after injury woes last year.
And Canada also boasts a pair of sisters competing this time around: Chloe and Justine Dufour-Lapointe in the women’s moguls.
It’s not the first time they’ve shared the stage – at Sochi 2014, Justine won gold, Chloe silver, and a THIRD sister Maxime finished 12th. The trio became known as 3SDL (three sisters Dufour-Lapointe).
But if you thought that was impressive, there are a whopping FOUR brother-sister pairs competing for Denmark in ice hockey alone! (Josefine & Julian Jakobsen; Josephine & Matthias Asperup; Emma & Patrick Russell; and Mia Bau Hansen & Mathias Hansen).
HISTORIC MOMENT FOR LGBTQIA+ ATHLETES
In fantastic news, there will be a record number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, pansexual and non-binary athletes. At least 35 publicly ‘out’ athletes will be in Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, more than double the 15 who competed in 2018.
That includes Australia’s Belle Brockhoff, a snowboarder who also identifies as lesbian.
The list includes four athletes representing countries in which they cannot legally marry their partners – Armenia, Italy, and the Czech Republic (two).
186 publicly out LGBTQIA+ athletes participated in the Tokyo Summer Games last year, according to Outsports.comthe most of any Olympics and more than triple the number of athletes from Rio 2016.
Beijing will become the first city to host both summer and Winter Olympic Games, after it hosted the 2008 Olympics. But there is a select group of athletes who have done the double, competing in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. That cross-code group numbers around 139 athletes, and is set to grow this year. Great Britain’s Montell Douglas is one of the few ready to join the club. She debuted as a Summer Olympian in 2008 in Beijing in the 4x100m relay (running) and will return to the city to compete in the two-woman bobsleigh.
THE TOPLESS TONGAN
There is one cult hero who will sadly be absent this time around. Pita Taufatofua competed in taekwondo in the 2016 Rio Games, and became a fan favourite thanks to his oiled-up, topless flagbearing antics. In 2018, he became Tonga’s first-ever Winter Olympian when he competed in cross-country skiing at PyeongChang – and once again wore just the taʻovala (a Tongan mat wrapped around the waist) as he carried the flag.
Then he went back to the Summer Games and again competed in taekwondo at the 2020 Tokyo Games last year – and yes, got his rig out once again to wave the flag with pride.
This year, the Brisbane born-and-based Taufatofua will be absent after he was unable to travel and compete for the last couple of years due to Covid-19.
The 38-year-old took to Instagram this week with a touching message of support for all the competitors.
“Three Olympics in a row I have been blessed with all of your kindness. The last two years, competition and travel has been non-existent. Not everything is in our control. That said I embrace both the good and the bad as part of life, and I do so with a smile,” he wrote.
“I continue with joy as I prepare to support all the Olympians who have worked so hard to represent their countries. They are all flag bearers, they all stand for that voice within that calls us all to become our very best,” he added.
But Taufatofua is continuing to serve his country with pride, working with UNICEF and the Australian government to rebuild Tonga after the volcanic eruption on Hunga Tonga – Hunga Haʻapai which also caused a tsunami.
But hopefully we see him in the next Summer Games (Paris 2024). He wrote: “I am just getting started”, and finished his message with “Paris ‘we’ are coming!”