By Nick Said
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Sive Speelman is more determined than ever to become South Africa’s first black alpine skier at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next year having been prevented from competing in Sochi by his own Games Committee.
A teenage Speelman was invited by the International Olympic Committee to compete at the Sochi Games in 2014 as a ‘borderline case’ having been marginally over the necessary mark of 140 in the Olympic FIS points list.
Yet the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) declined to send him, saying that he did not meet the required standard.
The body said it had an obligation to the nation to use only its best sportspeople.
The stance was criticised at the time as a wasted opportunity to showcase snow sports to a wider audience in the country. A decision on his participation in 2018 is likely to be made next month.
The Sochi rejection left Speelman devastated.
Yet the 22-year-old has now qualified again for Pyeongchang and is hopeful Sascoc will back his bid so he can act as an example to help grow the sport further in South Africa.
“It was devastating,” Speelman told Reuters in an interview shortly after jetting home from a slalom competition in Turkey.
“Putting in so much hard work in training and then not going to Sochi really broke my heart. But you know, being a pro athlete I just had to refocus and give it another try.”
Speelman competed in the Turkish national championships this past weekend and finished 20th in the slalom competition. He is hoping to take part in further events in the New Year.
“The preparation (in Turkey) went very well, I’m on top of my game. Things are going great. I’m thinking of going to India for a couple of races in January,” he said.
SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
Speelman competed at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, finishing 35th from a field of 48.
He says that experience, and his bid to qualify for Sochi, has shown him that he can be a source of inspiration for children of all races in the country.
“I think I’m a good role-model to kids because being at the Youth Olympics and qualifying for Sochi in 2014, I saw a difference even then, that there were more children wanting to take part in the sport.
“I was inspired by the great Alex Heath, South Africa’s triple Winter Olympian. It would mean a great deal to me to inspire other kids. It would be a great platform to inspire other up-and-coming skiers.”
Speelman admits that the opportunity to walk out at the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang and rub shoulders with the world’s leading skiers would be a great reward for the blood, sweat and tears he has put into trying to build a career on the slopes.
“There are a few guys I really look up to and consider role-models, the U.S. skier Ted Ligety is definitely one,” he said.
Speelman hails from Barkly East, a small, rural and impoverished town at the southern tip of South Africa’s Drakensberg mountains, one of the few areas of the country that gets significant snow.
He was discovered in a development programme headed by national coach Heath and run at the nearby Tiffindell Ski Resort. The programme offers free training to local children in the area and Speelman was instantly hooked.
“Being out in the snow and skiing is a very rare thing in South Africa. That motivates me,” he said. “It’s great travelling the world and doing what you love.”
Speelman receives funding from Snow Sports South Africa and says without their assistance his Olympic dream would have died long ago.
“The sport is very expensive, they try to get funds for us for the trips overseas, and funds for our equipment,” he said. “They do a great job with the development programme and there are a lot of up and coming black skiers.”
(Reporting By Nick Said; Editing by Toby Davis)