Fijian Skier Reaches Olympic Heights
By Geoff Young
AUCKLAND (Reuters) - A lack of snow has not stopped Fijian Laurence Thoms from achieving his ambition -- qualifying for the Alpine ski racing at next year's Winter Olympics.
Thoms will become the first competitor from the Pacific Island nation of Fiji -- which has an average temperature of more than 25 degrees Celsius -- to take part in the Winter Games when he goes to Salt Lake City next February.
The 21-year-old Thoms will carry the Fijian flag at the opening ceremony as he follows in the footsteps of Jamaica's bobsleigh team who captured the world's attention when they made their Winter Olympic debut in Calgary in 1988.
The Jamaicans, who had only four months training for Calgary, became instant favorites with the fans even though they failed to win a medal. The Caribbean quartet's achievements inspired the Disney film Cool Runnings.
Whether Thoms, who has been skiing for just four years, can achieve such fame remains to be seen but the Fijian is looking forward to the prospect of trying.
``It's quite exciting really,'' Thoms said from the Whakapapa ski area on Mount Ruapehu on New Zealand's North Island. ``There are only two of us actually competing at the moment and I've managed to reach the slalom standard.''
NEW ZEALAND BASE
Thoms, who was born in Fiji of a Fijian mother and a New Zealand father, was competing at Whakapapa in slalom and giant slalom races against New Zealanders and Australians.
The other Fijian on the snow, Tomasi Tiko, has not yet reached international standard but Thoms said he was progressing well.
``He struggled with the cold for a while but he's settling in now,'' he said. ``He's a really good athlete but at the moment he's a bit off the pace. He'll get there for the 2006 Winter Olympics, I'm sure of it.''
Thoms, like Tiko, is based in Wanaka on New Zealand's South Island, where he got his first taste of skiing when he attended the local polytechnic and trained to become a ski instructor. He also spent a year working in the United States.
The Fiji Alpine Skiing Association was set up by Swiss national Tony Hausworth, who spends time in the islands on business.
``He's a ski nut and he wanted to do something for the country,'' Thoms said. ``It obviously didn't concern him that Fiji is known for palm trees and beaches and the biggest mountain is only 1,300 yards (high).''
New Zealand is the closest country with decent mountains and regular snow and that is where Fiji's other skiing hopefuls, inspired by the achievement of Thoms, will eventually come.
``We haven't even got an artificial slope to train on yet,'' Thoms said. ``They've all got to come here.''
There are another six budding skiers in Fiji but most are still at school and according to Thoms are ``dead keen to come and try the real thing.''
Last year, sporting sanctions imposed after the May coup which overthrew the democratically-elected government in Fiji meant that Tomasi was denied permission to travel to New Zealand to train though Thoms was already in New Zealand and was not affected.
Coach Adi Bernasconi said the winter lay-off had affected Tomasi's chances of reaching the Olympic standard in time for the Salt Lake Games.
``He may not have made it but the coup and the resulting sanctions definitely meant he forfeited the opportunity,'' Bernasconi said. ``The ban ended in November but by then there was no snow left.''