When Dominica, a tiny Caribbean nation, makes its Winter Olympic debut on Friday, the cross-country skier carrying its flag at the opening ceremony will be a wealthy former investment fund manager from Staten Island who never tried cross-country skiing until after his 30th birthday, Christopher Clarey reports for The New York Times.
Now, after an intricate chain of events and a great deal of paperwork and world travel, Gary di Silvestri is a first-time Olympian at 47.
“Our story is different, definitely different,” di Silvestri said in an interview from Montana last week before arriving in Sochi.
The story includes his Italian-born wife, Angelica Morrone di Silvestri. At 48, she is the other member of the first Winter Olympic team from Dominica and is about to become the oldest woman to compete in Olympic cross-country skiing, far surpassing Norway’s Hilde Gjermundshaug, who was 41 in Turin in 2006.
Dominica (pronounced Doe-ma-NEE-ka) is a former British colony with about 73,000 inhabitants. Often confused with the Dominican Republic, it has black-sand beaches and — no surprise — a tropical climate.
“Our new motto will be sun, sea and sand, and snow if you want it,” Thomas Dorsett, the secretary general of the Dominica Olympic Committee, said in a telephone interview.
The golden age of the Winter Olympic tourist athlete — best symbolized bythe happily hapless Eddie Edwards, a British ski jumper known as the Eagle — is long gone. Qualifying standards were established in winter sports in the 1990s. But the di Silvestris, accomplished skiers who both managed to beat the Olympic and biological clocks by qualifying last month, are proof that acquiring nationality in a balmy place can still provide a path to the Winter Games for unlikely athletes who would be unable to make the cut in their countries of origin.
Some sports officials in the Caribbean reject this approach. Among them is Steve Stoute, the president of the Olympic association in Barbados, which has never had a team at the Winter Games.
“I wish them well, but it wouldn’t happen with my Olympic committee,” Stoute said of the di Silvestris.
Stoute, who said he did not think winter sports were a natural fit for a tropical nation, said prospective Olympians with no genuine connection to Barbados had regularly contacted his committee by letter or email in recent years offering their services in sports like cross-country skiing, curling and speedskating.
“For 2014, we got requests from Germany, Slovenia and Latvia, if my memory is correct,” he said. “For 2010, there were quite a few, but Canada and the U.S.A. come to mind, as they were very sincere and passionate.”
Stoute declined to provide the athletes’ names, saying that it would be “a breach of confidence.”
The other athletes representing Caribbean nations in Sochi were either born in or have family ties to the countries they will represent. Dow Travers, an Alpine skier for the Cayman Islands, was born and raised there before attending boarding school in Britain and Brown University in the United States. Jasmine Campbell, an Alpine skier for the United States Virgin Islands, was born there before moving to Idaho.
The di Silvestris have taken a less direct path. Without giving a precise date, di Silvestri said that he and Angelica had first visited Dominica “years ago” and that they had financed developmental and humanitarian projects on the island. He did not provide specifics on the projects but said he and his wife had done philanthropic work internationally in education, health and athletics.
“It’s a beautiful country; we fell in love with it, and the people are great, and we wanted to help them in some way,” he said. “These countries, they need assistance, so we did. We acted the best we could at the time, made a financial contribution to the country that went to different projects, and in return they granted us citizenship.”
Bill Mallon, an Olympic historian from the United States, called the di Silvestris “classic Olympic tourists.”
But di Silvestri said he and Angelica were serious athletes.
“We’re not taking this lightly,” he said. “The qualifying process was not easy.”
He said participating in the Olympics had not been on his mind when he became a citizen of Dominica. “Not really,” he said. “After the fact, yes.”