Flatlanders take plunge downhill and live to tell


VAL D'ISERE, France -- About this unlikely sighting of two Olympic skiers from Senegal, a coastal African nation as flat and hot as a pizza, it is best to begin with their respective endings in yesterday's downhill: One finished dead last, the other almost dead.

"My God, I was scared up there," said Lamine Gueye, a tall, trim, handsome son of Senegalese privilege. "You're thinking, 'I'd rather be somewhere else, anywhere else but here.' You're praying they cancel the race for some reason."

The 52nd of 56 skiers out of the gate on a warm, Picasso-blue afternoon, he made it down the 60-degree incline, high-fived an Austrian skier at the finish and dived headlong into the snow, clearly from relief. His time was the slowest among skiers who remained upright.

A reporter asked: What was the best part?

"Here," he said, "when I am done."

Right behind him came his teammate, Alphonse Gomis. Actually, right behind him for only a few feet came Alphonse Gomis, who made it through three turns before cartwheeling majestically and planting his nose in the snow -- not once, but twice. His right ski bounced across the ropes, an Alpine ground-rule double.

"I went out like a crazy man," Gomis said after being helped to the bottom, still fish-eyed after his unscheduled rendition of the funky chicken. "I think basically I tried too hard."

Yes. And that was that: the entirety of Senegal's ski federation, which includes a) the president, and b) the member. "No, my friend here is not the vice president," said Gueye, who, as the grandson of a former president of Senegal's parliament, is familiar with majority rule.

Gueye, 31, not only is the father of Senegalese skiing, but also was the only Senegalese skier in recorded history until this year. No surprise. We're not talking about football in Western Pennsylvania. In the dead of Senegal's winter it was 77 degrees yesterday, Gueye said. And the tallest peak is "maybe 250 meters, a light for the boats." As ski country, it's the anti-Alps.

But the story has a trick to it. Gueye was a troublesome child whose family shipped him to Switzerland for boarding school. "That's when I discovered snow," he said. "If I had been a quiet child, I would not be here today."

He progressed enough to compete in the 1984 Olympics, then put his skis in the attic. He began splitting time between Paris and Dakar, dabbling on the fringe of the stock business. Then the ski-jeebies struck him again last fall. He "got the dust off my skis," quit work and began training.

Then he got a call from Gomis, a small, wiry 26-year-old whose background could not be more different. He'd moved from Dakar to France as an infant, settling in a Marseilles slum as unrelenting as any. He learned to ski while attending a school for auto mechanics. The school sponsored ski weekends.

Unable to find work as a mechanic, and tiring of the urban life, he decided to move to the Alps to pursue his new love. Soon he was trained as a ski instructor, which remains his job today.

The toughest part of his training? "Giving up smoking and drinking," he said.

They have trained together for a couple of months, but money is a problem. Senegal's tourist board gave them $60,000, not a piddling sum, but the expensive sport siphons cash furiously. They hit on dozens of companies for sponsorship, without success.

"It makes it tough," Gueye said. "We are on our own. We haven't enough [money] for a coach. We have no one to tell us how to ski the mountain. We just find out ourselves. Then we talk."

They did succeed in finding sensational ski suits, with purple and gold splashed in an impressionist design. The president of the federation picked them out, and all morning people complimented him as he made his way up the mountain.

Not that that helped calm him. The thought of dropping off the side of a mountain, which is the downhill in sum, stirred human reactions in him, a far cry from the cool medal winners who profess nonchalance.

"Scared to death," Gueye said. "Couldn't eat a thing. Stomach a mess."

He couldn't even draw on the inspiration of knowing his country was cheering him on. Skiing makes not a single blip on the screen in Senegal. "I have to tell the people what snow is, what skis are," Gueye said. "I have to tell them what big mountains are. They don't have any reference on these things."

Anyway, he did make it down alive, and darn if he didn't suddenly want to go right back up. "That's always how you feel," he said. The truth is he is a better skier than most people. His time was seven seconds slower than the winner's, but finishing was a feat. This is no Eddie the Eagle. The man can ski a bit.

And ski he will these next two weeks. "I'm signed up for the slalom, the giant slalom, the combined, everything," he said. "I'm not missing a thing. We're here and we're going to do it all."

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