From yurts to the YOG: the Mongolian cross-country skiing team built by a retired Swiss doctor

Four athletes will fly Mongolia’s flag when the cross-country skiing competition begins on Saturday.

Picture by Pascal Gertsch

Although they will not start among the favourites, for one man the very fact they are competing at the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games will feel as good as gold.

It is proof that the considerable amounts of time, energy and money poured into a hugely ambitious project has come to fruition.

The quartet of skiers are products of a passion project Pascal Gertsch began three years ago in the wilderness of eastern Mongolia. 

With wooden sticks for makeshift ski poles, 15 enthusiastic children, and an affection for cross-country skiing and Mongolia, he embarked on a mission to build a team for the Lausanne Games, from scratch.

The retired Swiss doctor had been volunteering his medical expertise in Mongolia since 2013, and putting together a team for a Games held in his homeland seemed an opportunity not to be missed.

Pascal Gertsch

Before long, Gertsch had come up with blueprints to build ski tracks in Mongolia, imported hundreds of pairs of skis, and taken the young hopefuls on training and competition trips across Europe – all out of his own pocket.

“For me, it was completely crazy to [want to] have four, you don’t build an athlete [to compete at the top level] in two years,” said the 74-year-old, a skilful skier himself who was the doctor for the Swiss Nordic ski team for 12 years.

“It’s impossible. In the beginning, it was terrible. They have improved a lot and would have improved more if we had one more year.”

Pascal Gertsch

Among his team of young skiers is Nomin-Erdene Barsnyam, 15. “It was really hard at the beginning,” she said. “So many times I wanted to give up. But I wanted to make my country and family proud. That passion took me here.”

To introduce the young skiers to where they might be competing, Gertsch brought them on several training camps to Vallée de Joux, the cross-country skiing venue for Lausanne 2020.

To attain sufficient points on the International Ski Federation circuit and be eligible for the YOG, he took them from Italy to north of the Arctic Circle to compete in events.

“This is like my full-time job,” said Gertsch. He estimates he has invested more than US$200,000 (180,300 Euros) on the team so far.

Pascal Gertsch

Yet for the man who engineered the team’s fairy-tale run to the YOG, the personal satisfaction has been reward enough.

“I had so much pleasure doing this sport when I was young,” he said. “Now it’s time for me to try to give the same pleasure to the youth. Why not? You cannot put money [into] your coffin.

“These kids start always with 100 per cent of energy and are always positive. If they don’t have a good result in this race, they say the next one will be better. It’s nice to be with youths like this. They never complain and never say it’s too much.

Pascal Gertsch

“I’m proud of them. Their smiles are my salary. I don’t need any more.”

Team member Zolbayar Otgonlkhagva, a 17-year-old judoka-turned-skier, said: “It’s like I’m opening a new chapter in Mongolian sports history.

“I’m representing my country at the (Youth) Olympic Games and it feels so good.”