Timorese skier Yohan Goutt Gonçalves: Small nations and the meaning of the Olympic Spirit

Yohan Goutt Gonçalves will take part in his third Olympics when he represents the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste in Alpine skiing at Beijing 2022. But away from his own sporting ambitions, this busy athlete has become a figurehead for other “small skiing nations” across the globe. 

By Clémence Roult
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Yohan Goutt Gonçalves is not your average Alpine skier.

As well as qualifying for his third Olympic Winter Games, he spends a large portion of his time bringing attention to the country of his mother's birth, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, while working to develop a community of other small skiing nations.

The 27-year-old is currently juggling his preparations for Beijing 2022 with managing the Timorese ski federation, which he created with the help of his family ahead of the Sochi 2014 Games, and the organisation of FIS competitions for nations with low numbers of skiers.

Goutt found time in his busy schedule to talk to Olympics.com about his links to Timor-Leste, his kinship with the so-called exotic nations of skiing and his Beijing 2022 goals.

Representing Timor-Leste at the Olympic Winter Games

Goutt was born near Paris to a French father and Timorese mother. While Goutt was growing up, his father regularly took the family up to the mountains to ski. It was love at first sight for the young boy.

One day Goutt returned from a ski session with a friend of the family, who said: “This kid will go the Olympics.”

This one simple phrase became a direct objective for Goutt, who told his mother when he was still only eight: “That’s what I want to do. I want to ski for Timor-Leste at the Olympics.

“I wondered how I could do something for my country, without forgetting my roots. I thought sport represented an excellent opportunity,” explained Goutt.

The decision the young boy made seemed somewhat unusual from the off, as there is no word for 'snow' in the dialects of Timor-Leste, a small island north of Australia. It's also a decision that's thrown up some surprising situations and complicated circumstances for Goutt.

“One day I was in Timor-Leste and someone asked me where I was from,” Goutt said with a smile. “I answered that I was French-Timorese and the person said to me: ‘Oh, we know of another French-Timorese person! He’s an Alpine skier and we’re very proud of him.’”

This simple anecdote is evidence that, while his face may not be recognised in his mother's homeland, the exposure and pride Goutt brings to the Pacific island is real -- particularly as he's the only athlete from the country to have competed at an Olympic Winter Games.

Similarly, the flag of Timor-Leste is a point of curiosity for other skiers when Goutt travels to competitions.

“I was walking through the athletes’ room at a World Cup event and the entire Swiss team began talking about the flag," Goutt recalled. As they were speaking French, I walked up to them and began talking about the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste with Switzerland's Daniel Yule [PyeongChang 2018 mixed team parallel slalom champion].”

Helping people get to know the country better while practising his sport has always been one of Goutt’s main goals. But his journey hasn't always been easy.

Creating a federation and uniting the smaller skiing nations

The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste was declared independent in 2002. While some athletes went to the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics under a neutral flag, it was only in 2003 that the national committee was founded, offering Timorese athletes the opportunity to proudly compete in their country’s colours.

But apart from the peak of the Ramelau Mountain, which reaches an altitude of 3,000m and where temperatures drop to 8°C at night and in winter, the average temperature of Timor-Leste is 28°C and the island has never seen a snowflake.

As such, this isn't a nation you’d associate with winter sports.

“When I was 15, I still aimed to represent Timor-Leste at the Olympics, so I asked my mother how that could be possible. Firstly, we needed to create a ski federation," he remembered. “The NOC helped us with the bits related to the Olympics, however we also needed to ask the FIS to assist with the sporting aspects such as qualification points.”

As soon as the federation was formed, the Alpine specialist was able to compete for his country at official events. The venture was such a success that, to this day, would-be organisers for other sports reach out to the ski federation to help understand the steps required to set up their own federations on the island.

And, more than being just a domestic success, the new ski federation began to have an influence beyond the island's borders.

Goutt began making friends with skiers from nations with no strong Olympic history. Along with Jamaica’s Benjamin Alexander, Ghana’s Carlos Maeder, Morocco’s Yassine Aouich and Chinese Taipei’s Calcy Ning-Chien Tang, Goutt formed the ‘exotic ski team’ -- an unofficial team who live by the Olympic spirit.

“We created this group with the skier from Jamaica [Benjamin Alexander]," Goutt said. "I told him, ‘If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask because we can help each other.’ I am lucky enough to have gone to two Olympics, so I am able to help people who want to go and they bring the experience they have gained during competitions.

“Then we looked at the races that would be good ones to earn points in and decided that if we travel there together we can share the hotels, the food, the van rentals…So in that way we shared the costs and even our training sessions," Goutt continued. "We are not coaches but we are experienced so we’re trying to train in the best way we can, help each other and hope everyone reaches their objectives.

“The points required to reach the Olympics weren’t the most important thing," he went on. "It’s also about a community of small nations, different cultures and, I would say, the meaning of the Olympic spirit.”

Further evidence of his investment in smaller Alpine skiing nations can be seen in the fact that, along with his federation, Goutt organises some FIS races. Among them was one that took place last November under a winter dome in Dubai. It was there that Goutt sealed qualification for the Beijing 2022 Games.

A giant beyond the slalom

“In Sochi [2014] my goal was to raise my flag during the Opening Ceremony and to see my name on the board. I did that. I finished in 43rd position, without ever skiing to the level I can," Goutt said of his first Olympics. "At PyeongChang [2018] I wanted to do my very best but I probably tried too hard as I ended up going off the field, as a lot of skiers did that day.”

But this year, the skier’s goal is different. At Beijing 2022, Goutt will compete in two events: the slalom and the giant slalom. It will be a first for him and his country.

“As I did in PyeongChang, I want to give everything I have when I ski in Beijing,” he said.

In order to reach his goal, Goutt is relying on his friends from the so-called exotic nations to help him train in Eastern Europe.

And although he is looking forward to his next Olympic adventure, he's already made plans for the next steps on his journey. Goutt hopes to become a technical director at races.

Only a fool would doubt him. But before that next step, he has an appointment with the ski slopes of the People’s Republic of China and the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games, which begin on 4 February.


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