ALBERTVILLE, FRANCE -- Lamine Gueye is the founder, president, secretary, coach and trainer of the alpine ski team from Senegal. Oh yes, let's not forget he's also entered in the skiing competition and is half the republic's two-man Olympic delegation. Senegal, remember, is on the west coast of Africa, where on a cold day in winter the temperature might dip below 80. Gueye says there is one mountain -- "Well, you should probably call it a hill." These aren't conditions exactly suited to skiing. He had to convince a lot of people it wasn't a waste of time to send him and Alphonse Gomis to the Winter Games here in the Alps. "The first thing I had to explain to them," Gueye said, "is what snow is."
These are the people who make the Winter Games bearable, who remind you there's more to the Olympics than medals, who make you want to dust off your skates or skis and check the citizenship laws around the world before Lillehammer '94. Four nations -- Bermuda, the Philippines, Swaziland and Honduras -- are each represented by one competitor. That doesn't count Colombia's sole entrant, alpine skier Alberto Perez, who so far is a no-show. Senegal has two, the Netherlands Antilles brought three bobsledders, four skiers came from the tropical rain forest of Costa Rica, and four bobsledders accompanied Prince Albert from Monaco. Strangers in a strange land, they are about the last people you'd expect to see thrashing about in the snow and cold. Anne Abernathy of the Virgin Islands has a palm tree emblazoned on her luge. Asked if it's possible to train for the luge in the Virgin Islands, the Chef de Mission replied, "Yes, we put banana leaves on the runners. Gives a great glide."
You want comic relief? Take my man Faissal Cherradi of Morocco who has totally disrupted the 10-kilometer cross-country skiing. Earlier in the week, a Norwegian won the race in about 27 minutes. Cherradi took 34 minutes to finish the first half. Needless to say, he finished last, 110th, 23 1/2 minutes behind the two Moroccan teammates, who finished 107th and 108th. (Believe it or not, a Frenchman finished 109th, and he was ordered to turn over his passport at once.)
Cherradi's so slow the schedule makers at Les Saisies had to change his start time for Saturday's 15-kilometer race. When you finish 43 minutes behind the leader, you start 43 minutes later the next race. Problem is, that would get Cherradi off the mountain early Sunday morning, so they're bumping him up 23 minutes in a big-time show of mercy.
Luckily, misery has plenty of company. The ski team from Taiwan has at home only one ski area with a single 260-foot slope that has no lift. There's so little snow there the team trains on grass slopes, prompting Tang Wei-tsu to tell reporters this week, "If you fall on ice, you slide. If you fall on grass, you plant." Asked what Olympic goals you could possibly have when you'd be about the 50th best skier any weekend in Aspen, Tang said, "We basically compete against the other countries that have no snow: India, Greece, Morocco, the Philippines, Swaziland."
Seba Johnson got enough of being a novelty at the Calgary Winter Games in 1988 when she was the youngest competitor (14) and the first black skier in Olympic history. She is the striking offspring of a Watusi tribesman from Burundi and a blonde, blue-eyed woman from Maine. Johnson was born in St. Croix, learned to ski while spending winters with her grandmother in New Hampshire, improved when she and her mother moved to Lake Tahoe for awhile and became expert skiing the Alps while spending her junior year of high school in Germany. Attending the University of Maine at Farmington as a freshman allowed her to stay in a climate where she could train for the Olympics.
Her rank -- 1,334th in the giant slalom -- would suggest she has about as much chance to medal as Senegal's Gomis, who took a world-class agony-of-defeat spill earlier in the week. But Johnson said, "I want to be recognized as a normal racer. It makes me kind of wish I was racing for a country with snow."
Because she isn't, people back in the Virgin Islands still have a tough time comprehending what she does. "They can't imagine what snow is like," she said, "so I had to tell them it was like going to your icebox and feeling the inside of the door."
She said before the start of the Games she would like to attend Howard University next year and perhaps major in communications. But there's also the tug of being truly competitive in Lillehammer, which her Austrian coach thinks she can do with a lot of work. "I never realized I was all that black before I got to the Olympics and everybody made such a big deal about it. People looked at me and said I should be windsurfing or something."
Senegal's Gueye knows the feeling, although he admitted during an interview Thursday, "I was more used to barracudas under my feet than skis, believe me my friend." He recalled the first time he saw snow, 20 years ago when he was 11 years old in a Swiss boarding school. "I swam in it for 20 minutes and was sick for a week."
The International Olympic Committee is even now weeding out competitors who are deemed to have no chance, although that's presumptuous and risky at the very least. Two of the Taiwan skiers, despite training on grass slopes, finished 29th and 30th in the slalom at the 1989 World Championships at Vail, which is how they racked up enough points to get here. The IOC members must have short memories, considering that 30 years ago Russian basketball players couldn't have made a layup from a ladder, but worked at it hard enough to win gold medals in 1972 and 1988. Is the introduction of a silly sport like mogul skiing worth cutting loose Faissal Cherradi? No.
Gueye watched Gomis take that tumble and held his breath. Suppose one of the Senegal skiers gets hurt? "I felt something wrong with my back," Gueye said, "but we don't have a doctor. The U.S. doctor was kind enough to take a look at it for me. I told Alphonse to go fast, but not to break his neck. You know what is wonderful, what is overwhelming and beyond words? To be able to compete in the Olympics." Gueye, who lives in Paris and Dakar is in real estate and the stock market. And what does Gomis do, now that he is living here nearby in Tignes? "Alphonse," Gueye said with a trace of a smile, "is a ski instructor."