GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany (Reuters) - Haitians are as rare as grandfathers among the competitors who hurl themselves down the precipitous, icy slopes at the world skiing championships.
Haiti Ski Federation president, team captain and lone racer Jean-Pierre Roy just happens to be both.
On Thursday, the 47-year-old grandfather of one will take to the slopes in giant slalom qualifying hoping to join the likes of Ted Ligety, Bode Miller and Ivica Kostevic in the main event.
If he survives, Roy then hopes to form what he calls “a real skiing” team to represent the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean nation at the Olympic Games and future world championships.
“There are two days of snow on a peak at 2,000 meters above sea level, if you are lucky,” said Roy, who has been based in France since his family left Haiti when he was two and who now lives on the outskirts of Paris. “But skiing is my passion.”
“I’m quite a good non-professional skier. On ordinary slopes, there is no problem for me, but here I’m really scared.”
Wearing a ski jacket in the country’s blue and red colors with a Haitian flag proudly emblazoned on the front Roy, who regularly visits the country of his birth, said the idea of setting up the Haiti team came to him last year.
“My heart is in France but my roots are in Haiti,” said Roy, who has skied for one week every year since he went on a school trip aged eight .
His first move was to contact the International Ski Federation (FIS). “They were really helpful, they answered all our emails quickly,” he said.
He then had to get approval from the Haitian Olympic committee and government, which proved more difficult.
“We tried government officials, but one was too busy, another was stuck in Cuba because of a hurricane. Then I got a letter from somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody...and we sorted it out.
When Haiti was accepted by the FIS in November, reality struck. “I thought, it’s not a joke now, you have to do it,” he said.
At his first FIS event shortly afterwards, nobody took him seriously.
“People were laughing, saying I shouldn’t be there,” he said. “It was the worst race I’ve done. It was icy, foggy and I started at 92. But I finished the race and I was placed 25th, because 67 of them fell. That was my start.
Since then, he has been accepted by the skiing fraternity and at Garmisch stays in the same hotel as the Austrian team who have has won three of five gold medals.
“I talk to Lindsey Vonn, I talk to Bode Miller, everybody gives me encouragement,” he said. “I hope the qualification will be on the soft snow. The rules are quite difficult to understand but I’ve got a chance.”
Roy, who runs the federation with two cousins, has invested 12,000 euros ($16,260) of his own money in the project, while sports equipment manufacturers Rossignol has provided his equipment.
“When I received the first jacket with the flag, it was quite something,” he said.
He hopes to find other skiers of Haitian descent to join him.
“I would like to have a real ski team for the next Olympic Games,” he said. “I’m looking out for Haitians in France, the United States, Canada.
“Three days ago, I received a letter from a French couple who have adopted a Haitian and they live in the mountains.
“He is 10 years old and has been skiing since he was four, and he still has the Haiti passport. So he could be a good skier in a few years time.”
Roy’s motivation is to put Haiti in the news for reasons other than natural disasters, poverty and political violence.
“The aim is to talk about Haiti and have a positive picture,” he said. “With me, when you speak about Haiti, there is no misery, there is no disaster. There is a skier.”
Editing by John Mehaffey