East Timor skier, just 19, shoots for the Olympics
BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — When Yohan Goutt Goncalves decided he wanted to become a Winter Olympian, he discovered he’d have to form his own federation first.
Goutt Goncalves created the Federation of Skiing in East Timor with the help of his mother and family friends, chose himself as the only logical athlete to represent it, then proceeded to get the International Ski Federation to formally recognize it last June.
Presto — almost.
If the Goutt Goncalves, just 19, can pick up a minimum number of qualifying points, which he expects to do in some second-tier races beginning in Norway, he will become East Timor’s first athlete to compete in a Winter Olympics, taking to the hills of Sochi, Russia in slalom and giant slalom races.
Goutt Concalves is the son a French father and his mother is from East Timor, the tiny former Portuguese colony off Australia’s tropical north coast. Many of Goutt Goncalves’ family members live in Australia, where he has based himself for southern hemisphere winter training the past several years as he attempts to achieve his lifetime goal. Along the way, he hopes to raise the profile of East Timor and its continuing challenges, especially for the country’s youth.
The France-born Goutt Goncalves first hit the ski slopes in his father Pierre’s backpack when he was a year old, and skied for the first time when he was three.
“My long dream is being slowly achieved,” Goutt Goncalves said in a telephone interview from France with The Associated Press. He was on a short break from a training camp in Austria with several other skiers from countries who don’t have their own coaches.
“We have two Israeli girls and a Romanian, and we’re all skiing together,” he said. “Timor-Leste (the French words for East Timor) doesn’t have a lot of money, we can’t afford a private coach. Just two coaches and one trainer in Austria. We’re like a team who all want to represent our countries.”
Goutt Goncalves’ Facebook page, where he often receives messages of support, leaves no doubt as to his ambition. His main photo shows him skiing full throttle down a hill, and under his “Personal Interests,” the notation simply says: “SKINNNNNNNGG.”
The business administration student also posted a photo of himself with the East Timorese president, Taur Matan Ruak.
“It was a such an honor,” Goutt Goncalves said. “It was very big. The fact he accepted me there, he’s telling me that the Timorese government and all the people he knows are trying to follow me, and support me.”
East Timor’s people have been galvanized by a troubled past, and sport often helps them overcome it.
The country was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century and East Timor declared its independence in 1975. Indonesia invaded East Timor later that year and in the ensuing violence for nearly 15 years, up to 100,000 people were estimated to have died from killings or hunger and illness.
In 1999, following intervention from the United Nations, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory and East Timor became a sovereign state on May 20, 2002. But the country continues to face many challenges, including poverty, unemployment and a lack of social services — many impacting the harshest on the nation’s youth.
Goutt Goncalves’ family connections with Australia are not surprising. East Timor is only 600 kilometers (370 miles) northwest of the Northern Territory city of Darwin and Australia played a leading role in the country’s development, leading a military force that helped stabilize the country after independence.
In 1974, just before Indonesia invaded East Timor, Goutt Goncalves’ mother, Carolina, and her young siblings boarded a fishing boat in Dili and set sail for Darwin. Despite being overcrowded, the boat and its 500-plus passengers arrived safely, and the family was granted refugee status.
Carolina Goutt Goncalves said her son is passionately proud of his East Timorese roots.
“Since my best friend (an Australian) mentioned that he was going to introduce Yohan to the Australian Institute of Sport, to represent Australia at the Winter Olympics ... and Yohan’s answer was if I represent any country, it will be my mum’s country,” Carolina wrote in an email to the AP from France, where she now lives.
“He was 8 then, so I think Yohan has it in his heart that people around the world should know where Timor Leste is.”
Carolina Goutt Goncalves said Yohan’s younger brother, Alexi, also skis and hopes to follow in his brother’s footsteps.
“Both boys really love Timor. Somehow I guess unconsciously I passed this love for my country, my roots, my culture on to the boys without realizing it,” she said. “Yohan’s other concern is Timor Leste’s youth. Like in many countries unfortunately many youth, like he says, ‘get lost and end up doing the wrong things in life’.”
She said her son and other family members and supporters have created two associations, one in Australia and the other in France, to help the East Timor ski federation use its name — and maybe clout in the future — to aid in projects for the country’s youth.
“Timor is a pretty new country, and I hope I can make a difference,” Goutt Goncalves said. “I don’t want to throw myself flowers, but it’s starting to build itself as a proud independent country. I want to show that it’s not only about war, our country. So it’s special for me.”
With daytime temperatures of about 85 degrees year-round, the country of 1.1 million has hardly the climate to spawn any island-based Winter Olympians. It has been represented in the Summer Olympics, however, mostly by marathon runners. In 2000, four athletes from East Timor competed as individual athletes under the Olympic flag at the Sydney Games as East Timor had not yet been made a state.
The National Olympic Committee was only established in 2007, and two athletes have competed at the Summer Games in 2004, 2008 and last year in London. Augusto Ramos Soares placed 84th of the 85 men’s marathon finishers in London, while Juventina Napoleao was 106th out of 107 finishers in the women’s marathon.
Goutt Goncalves hopes to improve on those performances if he competes in slalom and giant slalom races at Sochi’s Alpine ski resort Krasnaya Polyana in February. In the future, he might advance to the speedier and more dangerous downhill, which he describes now as a “really, really scary” discipline.
For now, his short-term goal is to finish ahead of his friend and another French-born skier, Samir Azzimani, who was 44th in the slalom at the 2010 Olympics as Morocco’s sole athlete in Vancouver. Azzimani carried Morocco’s flag at the opening ceremony, and Goutt Goncalves would likely do the same for East Timor at Sochi.
“I’m feeling very confident, and hope my performances over the next few months will be encouraging,” Goutt Goncalves said. “I’m still young, and this will hopefully be just the start of my Olympic career.”