LONE STARS: Armies of one at the Turin Olympics

Updated: February 24, 2006, 11:47 AM ET
Associated Press

TURIN, Italy - Robel Teklemariam made Olympic history for being the first Ethiopian to compete in the Winter Games. And he hasn't won a darn thing since he got here.

Neither has Prawat Nagvajara of Thailand. Nor Phillip Kimely Boit of Kenya. Or Arturo Kinch of Costa Rica.

It doesn't really matter to them. They are one-person delegations from countries not known for snow, and they are just plain happy to be at the Torino Games.

Even if they finish dead last.

Which is what happened to cross-country skier Nagvajara, and he's no Olympic novice.

He's also no spring chicken. He's 47, one of the oldest athletes at the Winter Games. The oldest is 52-year-old Anne Abernathy, a luger from the Virgin Islands whose name is on the IOC's list of competitors. A crash while practicing last weekend broke her wrist and kept the woman known as "Grandma Luge" out of the games.

She's also the sole representative of the U.S. territory.

In his day-to-day life, Nagvajara is an engineering professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He first competed in the 15km cross-country classical ski run in 2002 at Salt Lake City, finishing 68th, which was an improvement over his performance in the 30km race, during which he wiped out and was unable to finish.

But Friday was much worse. He finished 97th - dead last - slogging across the track in a blizzard in a sport that under the best conditions can be like trying to walk fast in sand. Which is very similar to how Danny Silva of Portugal trains in his home country. Silva is also a solo delegation. He finished 94th.

Nagvajara closed out the competition about 30 minutes behind the winner, Andrus Veerpalu of Estonia.

He had to stop to knock off snow stuck to the wax on his skis. And he fell down some.

"These things happen," Nagvajara said. "I'm just so happy that I'm here."

He learned to ski in Boston while attending college.

He showed the same self-deprecation at Salt Lake City after his big crash. "I got too cocky and fell when trying to overtake someone," he said at the time. "But it was great fun." As was the case on Friday, he was also going very slow.

Torino was the Winter Games debut for Ethiopia's Teklemariam, who finished 84th in the same race as Nagvajara.

"Now that it's over, I feel really good," he said. "The conditions were tough."

But that is all in his rearview mirror. "I had a good time," he said.

And in one of the greatest understatements of the games thus far, he explained the winter weather in his native country: "There's not much snow in Ethiopia."

He moved to New York with his family as a child. He started training 19 years ago. "I dream big," he conceded. His dream to ski at the Winter Games had a nightmare moment when he failed a blood test and was suspended for five days because of high levels of hemoglobin. He thinks the cause was dehydration.

"It was definitely a surprise," he said.

A later test showed normal levels, clearing the way for his last-place performance.

No one on the one-person teams really expects to win a gold medal. Or any medal, truth be told. Most are ex-patriots living abroad who have the means and the time to train for a sport that can't be played in their native country.

Rather, it's for the joy of competition and the simple pleasure of just taking part.

And the fans love them. During Torino's opening ceremony, the mostly Italian crowd warmly greeted the solo delegations, whose members do all the parade duties simultaneously: march, carry the flag, and bring up the rear.

The Italians especially loved Teklemariam because it was his Olympic debut. But he wasn't alone in being alone.

Eighteen out of 80 countries have one-member teams. Among them are Cyprus, Madagascar, Senegal, Nepal, Hong Kong and Bermuda.

Dachhiri Sherpa of Nepal, who runs marathons in Katmandu and the Himalayas, also competed in the 15km cross-country classical.

He finished 95th. He didn't care.

"I am very happy," he said. "It is important not for the result. But for my family and my country."


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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