ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) – Few people were surprised when Finland’s Iivo Niskanen won the 15km classic race at the Beijing Olympics, but those who looked beyond the podium may have been shocked to see Ireland as the sixth nation on the list with their man in 14th place.
Thomas Maloney Westgaard may have been born in the same country as bronze medallist Johannes Klaebo of Norway but he skis in the Irish green and even briefly held the lead in the race eventually won by Niskanen, a sign of the progress the 26-year-old has made since his Olympic debut in 2018.
In the end, he wound up behind a variety of athletes from more traditional nations like Norway, Finland, the Russian Olympic Committee, France and Sweden, but his top-15 finish was a victory for the smaller countries who are often a mere footnote in cross-country skiing.
“I haven’t won an Olympic gold but the 14th place, it nearly feels like a medal for me,” Westgaard told Reuters as he prepared for the iconic 50km race that will bring the men’s cross-country programme at the Games to an end on Saturday.
“You feel we (Ireland) get more respect on the skiing circuit, so it was a fantastic moment, coming in representing a smaller nation.”
Like many Winter Olympic athletes, Westgaard has to fight for the resources to dedicate himself to his sport.
“It is really hard regarding funding and that kind of stuff, especially when they compare us with the bigger nations. So that ours was the sixth best nation in the 15k, behind nations that are taking Olympic medals in cross-country skiing during these Olympics, this is fantastic,” he said.
The level-headed Westgaard has combined studying and skiing since high school but taking part on the World Cup circuit and training to compete at the highest level requires support.
With Ireland having only a handful of snow days per year and winter sports not being a priority, he believes resources should come from the International Olympic Committee and International Ski Federation (FIS) as a carrot for smaller countries.
“It’s always the first thing you always ask for, more support, and I think there is potential there to take care of smaller nations better,” he said.
“Ireland has improved a lot in the world rankings in cross-country skiing, we were in 20th position last year — I mean, that is just a huge achievement in itself. You really hope now that things could maybe be sorted out a bit better,” he added.
With its history of emigration, Ireland has a large contingent of people, such as Westgaard, based abroad, and half of its six-person team in Beijing were born outside the country.
Westgaard hails from the small Norwegian island of Le, where the 600 residents used to wait for his father to carve classic ski tracks using a scooter when the first snow of the year fell.
“We made the most of it, and when I was 16 I moved to secondary school, which was a skiing school, and from that point I went all-in for cross country skiing,” he recalled.
With Norway a superpower in the sport, the competition there was tough and Westgaard began the slow, arduous climb that has so far resulted in two Olympics with Ireland, and hopefully a third in four years’ time.
But first is Saturday’s 50km freestyle race where a number of smaller nations traditionally get a rare Olympic outing.
“The Olympics is the highest achievement you can do as an athlete, so to do it representing Ireland, this is a really proud moment,” a determined Westgaard said.
“I’m really honoured to be here in China and to ski for Ireland.”
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris)