Latin American athletes seek place in Winter Games

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - Latin American countries made their debut in the winter edition of the Olympics at the 1928 Games in St. Moritz, where Argentina finished fourth in the five-man bobsled.

It’s been downhill ever since.

That fourth place - in an event that no longer exists - remains the high-water mark for a Winter Olympian from Latin America. At these games, 32 athletes from seven Latin American countries competed in Sochi, with Chilean freestyle skier Dominique Ohaco topping out with a 13th place in slopestyle.

Will there ever be a Winter Olympics medalist from Latin America?

“You can’t buy passion. It grows when you practice a sport,” said Mariano Rodriguez Giesso, the Argentina delegation chief in Sochi. “You need someone to spread that passion, someone people can watch on their screens and be inspired to take up a sport.”

Argentina and Chile would seem to have the best chance to find an athlete who could inspire a Latin American nation to such Olympic greatness. Both countries, located on either side of the Andes mountains, have a winter sports tradition and world-class ski resorts, including Bariloche in Argentina and Portillo in Chile.

What they lack, said skier Noelle Barahona of Chile, who competed in four Alpine events in Sochi, is system of financial support for athletes year-round, not only when the games are approaching.

“No one in Chile cares about us for four years, then they remember us when the Winter Games are approaching,” Barahona said. “Now we’ll go to Chile and we probably won’t see a cent in the next three years.”

While athletes from Argentina and Chile do have access to have snow-capped mountains at home, they say their countries also lack the necessary infrastructure to develop athletes who can compete at an Olympic level.

“We have a similar winter (to Europe), maybe with even more snow,” said Eugenio Claro, a 20-year old Chilean skier who finished 45th in the super-G and did not finish the giant slalom in Sochi.

“But the (ski) season in Chile is shorter, maybe three months, while it lasts seven months in Europe,” Claro said. “We have maybe five ski resorts, which are difficult to access for the common Chilean. This makes the sport very expensive for us.”

Most ski resorts in Chile are located high in the Andes, in the central and central-southern part of the country.

“Then there’s Patagonia, but that region is uninhabited. There are no ski resorts,” he said. “It’s not only financial support (to athletes), you also need a complete infrastructure. You can throw money around, but it won’t help without the infrastructure.”

There is little to no snow anywhere else in Latin America. It never falls in Brazil, which with 13 sent the most athletes of any Latin American nation to Sochi, including teams in four-man and women’s bobsled. They train in other countries, as do the athletes from Peru, Venezuela, Mexico and Paraguay.

Among them: German pop-singer and photographer Prince Hubertus Von Hohenlohe, born in Mexico, who is competing in his sixth consecutive Winter Games. He is expected to wear a mariachi-themed body suit in Saturday’s slalom.

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