Togolese Cross-Country Skier’s Olympic Journey Began on FacebookChris Spillane and Kossi Woussou
Mathilde-Amivi Petitjean can thank social media for her spot on Togo’s first Winter Olympic team.
Petitjean, a cross-country skier who was born in the West African nation and lives in the French Alps, said she was despondent over losing her spot on a local junior team when she praised the performance of Togolese skier Gervacio Maajah at the World Ski Championships on Facebook Inc.
“I gave my opinion on the Togolese Ski Federation’s Facebook account and soon a contact request appeared,” Petitjean, who is from the mountain town of Kpalime 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Togo’s capital, said in an interview. “On Nov. 3, I got the right from the International Ski Federation to compete for Togo, my homeland.”
Petitjean, 19, moved to France’s Rhones-Alps region as a two-year-old and learned to ski on the slopes of Haute Savoie in the Alps. She’ll compete in the 10-kilometer cross-country skiing event on Togo’s first winter Olympic team. Compatriot Alessia Afi Dipol, an alpine skier, will join her in Sochi, Russia, when the Games start on Feb. 7.
The West African nation, known as the homeland of Tottenham Hotspur striker Emmanuel Adebayor, has never sent an athlete to the Winter Olympics, preferring to concentrate on the Summer Games, where its medal count amounts to a single bronze in the men’s slalom canoe event in Beijing in 2008.
“Living in Savoie since the age of two and a half, it was logical that I moved into a winter sport,” said Petitjean, who finished 56th out of 71 racers in the 10 kilometer skiathlon at the Junior World Ski championships last month in Val di Fiemme, Italy. “I want to show that winter sports aren’t reserved only for people in developed countries. Jamaica had shown the way to the Calgary bobsleigh.”
The Caribbean island nation’s bobsled team is competing this year after debuting in 1988 in Calgary, Alberta, and inspiring Walt Disney Co.’s 1993 “Cool Runnings” movie. The temperature in Togo and Jamaica hovers above 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 Celsius) year-round.
Athletes from warmer climates are welcomed by those from more traditional winter sports powers, said Jessica Gregg, a short-track speed skater from Edmonton, Alberta.
“It’s amazing, it’s what the Olympics are all about,” Gregg, 25, said in an interview. “The more smaller and less represented countries that come here makes the Games even bigger.”
Savoie is home to Val-d’Isere, Les Arcs, Tignes and Chamonix, where the first Winter Olympics were held in 1924. Petitjean competed four times in Chamonix this year.
Cross country is split into 12 events -- six each for men and women -- at the Winter Games. In the individual race, where Petitjean will compete, skiers start at 30-second intervals and participants start in reverse order to their ranking, which allows faster athletes to overtake competitors.
“I don’t have much experience and competing with people who are 10 years older than me is a challenge,” she said. “I’ll try to make a big performance because only the first 30 competitors qualify for the playoff groups.”
Petitjean will compete at the 7,500-seat capacity Laura Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Centre. That’s where she’ll face 25-year-old Therese Johaug, the Norwegian who is the top-ranked female cross-country skier.
Although skiing equipment, such as skis, poles and boots, are provided by Fischer Sports GmBH, Petitjean relies on her parents to pay for training, travel and competition clothing as she hasn’t received any funding from the National Olympic Committee or Olympic scholarships.
“Information about me is starting to generate interest but there’s a still some way to go,” she said. “The financial situation is really worrying. Partnership projects are being studied but so far there’s nothing concrete.”
After the Games end on Feb. 23, she plans to return to France and finish high school. She already has her sights on the next Olympics.
“I plan to get my bachelor’s degree in order to continue my studies, surely in sports,” she said. “I’ll continue to ski at a high level to achieve the global level and go to the next Olympics.”