JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — This is a heartwarming Olympic story that could have been.
Slalom skier Sive Speelman trained for years with the dream of reaching the Olympics — a peculiar pursuit for a boy from South Africa’s rural, impoverished Eastern Cape. Against all odds, and with a lot of hard work, he earned a spot at Sochi — and would have been his country’s first-ever black contender for the Winter Games.
But instead of standing among the athletes streaming into Sochi’s Fisht Olympic Stadium Friday night, where he would have been the lone South African, Speelman was back in his remote hometown, a broken young man.
“He’s feeling pretty bleak, to put it bluntly,” said Speelman’s coach, Alex Heath. “He can’t understand what he’s done wrong. He feels he’s been robbed.”
It was Speelman’s own countrymen who decided that he would not be attending.
Speelman underwent ritual circumcision in order to become a man before he took part in a final few races to qualify for the Games. His best friend had died during the same ritual.
Speelman, 18, narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics under the International Ski Federation's points system, but was still awarded a place at Sochi by the International Olympic Committee because he had achieved a secondary qualification standard.
Despite the IOC’s approval, South Africa’s Olympic governing body opted to send no one rather than to send Speelman. By way of explanation, the group released a statement saying that it was following strict selection criteria to ensure the country’s participation at international events is “of the highest quality.”
South Africa’s only allocated spot for Sochi was given to another nation. Thus, for the first time since 1994, after post-apartheid South Africa was readmitted to the IOC, no athlete is representing the country at the Winter Games.
Heath, who skied for South Africa at three Winter Olympics before becoming a coach, said Speelman would have been the first black African “that has come through Africa” to compete.
Unlike the three skiers from African countries currently in Sochi, who grew up in Europe, the US and Canada, Speelman is a born-and-bred South African, and a product of a local development program.
“The sport isn’t just about the medal winners, it’s about the universality,” Heath said. “He’s done everything right and he’s been denied.”
“It’s frustrating,” he added. “I can find no logic behind the decision.”
Speelman grew up in Barkly East, a small town in the southern Drakensberg mountains near South Africa’s border with Lesotho. This area is home to the only two ski resorts in all of sub-Saharan Africa — Tiffindell, in South Africa, and AfriSki, in Lesotho.
(Sive Speelman's Olympic Dream/Facebook)
When Speelman was 9 years old he began skiing at Tiffindell thanks to a program to teach the sport to local children — an almost unheard-of opportunity in South Africa.
His fell in love with alpine skiing, and under Heath’s guidance, the talented young athlete began intensive training and racing on an international circuit.
Speelman’s road to the Olympics was unusual in other ways, too.
While home for Christmas, the teenager took part in a traditional initiation ceremony of the Xhosa people. Speelman underwent ritual circumcision while living under difficult conditions in the bush in order to be considered a man before he took part in a final few races to qualify for the Games.
His best friend had died during the same ritual.
Peter Pilz, president of Snow Sports South Africa, said the decision not to send Speelman to Sochi was “a slap in the face” for the young skier and for the country’s fledgling ski industry.
“Sive could have been a very good role model for the sport,” Pilz said. “He’s coming from a very poor region in the Eastern Cape, and it would have boosted them.”
Already his success has inspired children in the area to join ski clubs and to take part in skiing at their schools.
“All their hopes are dashed now. They have lost trust in the Olympic dream,” Pilz said.
Instead of traveling to Russia, Speelman has returned to high school in Barkly East, and is said to be depressed by the turn of events.
“His spirit is very much broken,” Pilz said. “It’s so devastating to him and to the country.”
Heath, in a message posted on Facebook, said that he found it “painful” to watch the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics.
“It would have been my proudest moment in sport to walk behind Sive carrying the flag,” he wrote. “It was a long hard road to qualify, and he earned his place. What a tragedy.”