With a highest peak standing at a shade over 1,000 metres and snow as rare as a pub without Guinness, Ireland understandably has little tradition in Alpine skiing. On Wednesday at the Yongpyong Alpine Centre, however, the Irish tricolour was flying proudly above the family of Tess Arbez as they huddled up in the biting wind, waiting to watch the 20-year-old compete in the women’s slalom.
Coming from ski country, they were not too uncomfortable, but their journey was wasted as high winds forced the postponement of the third Alpine event in four days at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Arbez will therefore have to wait until Thursday to make her Olympic debut in the women’s giant slalom and bring her family back to the Games for the first time since 1968. While mother Marguerite’s heritage provided Arbez with the chance to follow brother Maxim in representing Ireland, it was father Jean-Max who pitched in with the love of winter sports. “I’m the one who gave her the gene, the DNA of skiing, her mum gave her the brain but I also gave her the legs,” he told Reuters with a chuckle as the family stood behind a sign reading “Fan Club Tess Arbez”.
“My uncle was doing ski-jumping and he was in the Olympic Games in Grenoble in ’68 representing France, so we are back after 50 years!” Arbez was raised in France and took to skis from a young age on the slopes of the resorts around Mont Blanc. “She skied in French groups when she was young and went up to the French age group competitions, but for the big events there’s many, many more skiers,” Marguerite explained.
“The chance for her was that she could ski for Ireland in the world championships at the age of 17 years old, whereas with the other countries it would not happen that way.” Ireland has never won a medal of any kind at the Winter Olympics and the five athletes in Pyeongchang look unlikely to change that.
With only a couple of artificial slopes in Ireland, local winter sports officials have been looking to tap the vast Irish diaspora in the search for talent. “Winter sports aren’t so popular,” Marguerite said. “It’s kind of new to them but we have a lot of skiers who are Irish-American, Irish-French, Irish-Austrian now so they’ve been making a lot of buzz about winter sports in Ireland and hoping to get a lot more people into them.”
And while the accents of all the family apart from Marguerite were more Chamonix than County Carlow, the flags and shamrocks left no doubt which country Tess was representing. “She’s so happy to be here it’s a huge honour,” Marguerite added.