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A Brief History of Underqualified Wealthy Athletes Competing at the Winter Olympics

The Winter Games showcase the talents of the best athletes in the world … and sometimes those of chart-topping violinists, clothing-company heiresses, and descendants of German royalty

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Olympics are not exclusively for the world’s best athletes. If they were, the opening ceremony would be a lot sadder and smaller. The Olympics are for the world’s best athletes and a bunch of comparatively regular people who compete against the world’s best athletes and allow host stadiums to fly more flags.

Those other people, strangely enough, often stick in our memories longer than legitimate medal contenders. Team USA has won gold in bobsled at the Olympics seven times, but most Americans’ first association with the sport comes from the 1993 movie Cool Runnings, which immortalizes the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team that finished in last place. 20th Century Fox made a 2016 movie about Eddie the Eagle, not any Olympic ski jumping champions. On a more personal level, I will never forget Eric Moussambani, the athlete from Equatorial Guinea who I feared might drown in his attempt to swim 100 meters during the 2000 Sydney Games.

At the Summer Olympics, the appearances of these less-than-qualified participants are guaranteed. Every nation in the world can put forward four competitors, no questions asked—one spot for a male and female athlete in both swimming and track and field. These are called “universality places,” since they allow the entire world to be represented in the Olympics. At the 2016 Rio Games, I interviewed some of these athletes.

At the Winter Olympics, though, there are no universality places. In all sports, athletes have to meet certain qualification standards. However, as viewers might have found out from watching Hungarian skier Elizabeth Swaney this week, those standards aren’t necessarily high.

Swaney is a tech recruiter who went to Cal and Harvard. She’s American, but she was allowed to compete for Hungary because she has Hungarian grandparents. As Reuters explained, she was able to earn a high enough world ranking to make the Olympics simply due to “the sheer volume of qualifying events” in which she participated. She didn’t need to earn impressive scores—she basically needed not to crash. (Swaney was more passionate about making the Olympics than about achieving success: She previously attempted to qualify for the Olympics in skeleton, representing Venezuela, but apparently found skiing to have an easier qualification process. Her LinkedIn page now proudly reads “2018 Olympian.”)

The main factor in determining whether an athlete can make the Winter Olympics is not always skill. In some cases, it’s whether a given athlete has the financial resources and free time to attend qualifying events in snowy locales and whether the person is a citizen of a country that is short on Winter Olympics–qualified athletes.

There are stories of competitors who hail from non-wintry countries making the Winter Games, who have scratched together the capital necessary to make their appearances: This year’s Jamaican bobsled team needed a beer benefactor to buy it a $50,000 bobsled; the Nigerian bobsled team needed to raise $75,000 on GoFundMe; the shirtless Tongan skier raised almost $28,000. This is the story of those who fall into the other camp. Here is a brief history of competitors making the Winter Olympics mainly by virtue of being rich.

Vanessa Vanakorn, Thailand, Alpine Skiing

Vanakorn didn’t qualify for the 2018 Olympics, dropping out of competition in January because of a shoulder injury, but she contributed to a pair of medal-winning performances in Pyeongchang. Japanese figure skater Shoma Uno and Chinese pairs skaters Han Cong and Sui Wenjing both won silver thanks to routines featuring a song that Vanakorn recorded in 1997, “Violin Fantasy on Puccini’s ‘Turandot.’” Filipino skater Michael Christian Martinez performed to Vanakorn’s 2004 song “Emerald Tiger.”

Of course, Vanakorn also didn’t qualify for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, but she managed to compete in those games nonetheless.

Vanakorn, better known by her stage name, Vanessa-Mae, is a famous violinist who makes “pop classical” music. If you aren’t familiar with “pop classical” music, well, imagine somebody playing a classical instrument over a drum machine in a way that could lead to music videos like this.

Vanessa-Mae discovered a huge untapped market for sexy violin-playing. She sold stunning numbers of records for a classical artist, with her 1995 album, The Violin Player, topping the Austrian charts. Her music never charted in America, but when Janet Jackson and Prince needed violinists for their albums, they both turned to Vanessa-Mae.

After making tens of millions of dollars in her teens and 20s, though, Vanessa-Mae seemingly lost interest in making music. She fired her mother, who had controlled nearly every aspect of her life and career and strongly discouraged her from skiing, as her manager in 2001. She hasn’t released an album since 2004, and instead turned her focus to the sport her mother hated. “It has been my dream to be a ski bum since I was 14,” Vanessa-Mae told Reuters, which reported that she moved to a Swiss ski resort full-time in 2009. In 2010, she told The Daily Telegraph that she “was no longer enjoying” the grind of her music career, and was shifting her attention to “her lifelong hobby” and her dream of making the next Olympics under the flag of her father’s homeland of Thailand.

But despite her apparent lifelong passion for skiing and that 2010 interview implying she would spend the next four years training for the Olympics, she never thought that she would be competitive. In the aforementioned Reuters report, Vanessa-Mae said she had “no delusions about a podium or even being top 100.” In Sochi, she went so far as to concede that she trained for the games for only about six months. Her Olympics experience was a lot different from that of the average Olympian: She told The Daily Mail that she attended a gala dinner with Vladimir Putin and opted not to stay in the Olympic Village because she wouldn’t have been allowed to bring her pet chihuahua, Max.

Sixty-seven competitors finished the giant slalom in Sochi. Vanessa-Mae didn’t just finish 67th out of 67: She was 11 full seconds worse than the 66th-best finisher. This, in an event in which the top seven competitors all finished within a second of one another. Here’s a video of Vanessa-Mae’s run. She looks like your average bunny-sloper.

The real drama, however, started after the Olympics. Vanessa’s final qualifying race for Sochi took place about three weeks before the Olympics, putting her in the games “by a whisker.” As it turns out, Vanessa-Mae’s entourage had contacted a Slovenian ski club with just about a week before the cutoff to qualify, paying it 6,000 euros to quickly organize races for the explicit purpose of getting her enough points to gain eligibility. That is legal by International Olympic Committee standards, but when officials got around to looking at the races, they found all sorts of inconsistencies. There was a retired skier with a relatively high ranking listed as participating in a race to increase the number of points that Vanessa-Mae would receive; racers who weren’t present or didn’t finish were given arbitrary finishing times; the organizers did not alter the course layout in between races, as they are supposed to. Knowing they had to cram in races before the Olympic cutoff, organizers held several races in weather conditions that were unsuitable. One race was even billed as the “Thai Junior National Championships” despite taking place in Slovenia and including no Thai participants besides the then-35-year-old Vanessa-Mae.

Following an investigation, Vanessa-Mae was banned from competitive skiing for four years. “At first we were laughing when we heard [what happened], but then we realized it’s quite a serious thing,” International Ski Federation president Gian-Franco Kasper said. He went on to note that Vanessa-Mae wouldn’t care: “She was racing probably once and that’s all.”

This was a poor assumption: Vanessa-Mae cared immensely. She filed a defamation lawsuit against the FIS, seeking to overturn her ban. In the suit, she didn’t argue that the races were legitimate, but rather that they had been rigged without her knowledge and that her ban was undeserved. Maybe, she argued, everybody involved decided to rig the races in her favor because she is a celebrity, and people do nice things for celebrities. “The appellant is a world famous musician,” the case file states. “The officials and all participants perhaps allowed themselves to be ‘smitten’ by this. In other words, there may have been a certain peer pressure prevailing to ‘favour the Appellant’, i.e. allow her to qualify for the Olympics.”

I’m so famous that people just can’t help themselves from breaking Olympic rules for me seems like a flimsy legal argument. But it worked! The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in Vanessa-Mae’s favor, finding it plausible that Vanessa-Mae didn’t know about the rules that were broken and deciding that 6,000 euros was not an unreasonable amount to pay to organize the races. The FIS apologized and was forced to pay Vanessa’s legal fees and an undisclosed settlement, which she said she would donate to charity. The Slovenian ski officials who organized the races took the fall, as nobody ever disputed their guilt in the matter.

With her ban overturned, Vanessa-Mae tried to qualify for the 2018 Games, this time via a more traditional route; she began to race last July in hopes of gaining points, instead of trying to gain entry in a week. Her injury likely ended her skiing career. Maybe she can find a loophole that awards her an Olympic medal when figure skaters win by performing to her music.

Gary and Angelica di Silvestri, Cross-Country Skiing, Dominica

Need to become a citizen of another country ASAP, with few questions asked? Your best bet is probably Dominica. For as little as $100,000, you can become a verified citizen of the tiny Caribbean nation. Shady people online swear by it!

This was great news for Gary and Angelica di Silvestri, a married couple who originally hail from Staten Island, New York, and Cosenza, Italy, respectively. As Deadspin uncovered, the pair had a history of suspicious financial and athletic dealings before they qualified for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. They were linked to multimillion-dollar tax fraud for selling a mega-mansion in Turks and Caicos; during her time as a Fiat employee, Angelica reportedly tried to trade Fiat cars for votes to bring the skiing world championships to Italy; and Gary seemingly had a knack for misleading people about his wrestling and rowing background.

The di Silvestris’ supporters argued vehemently that they did not buy their 2014 Olympic spots, a notion that is technically true. But they did buy their Dominican citizenship—they said they had visited Dominica once before getting citizenship, and they never took up residence in the country—and exploited the Olympics’ rules that allow anyone from a country without elite skiers to qualify by competing in some low-level races. Angelica qualified with just a day to go before the Sochi cutoff—the same day as Vanessa-Mae—finishing 26th out of 26 entrants in one of her final races.

Before Deadspin’s reporting, the di Silvestris were given mostly peachy coverage. “Wait until Hollywood gets its hands on this story,” wrote the Staten Island Advance about the hometown boy competing for an entirely different island. In that article, Gary characterized the couple’s citizenship as “a kind of thank you” from Dominica’s government for what he claimed was philanthropic work. The New York Times gave Gary a platform to talk about how their participation might allow Dominican children to embrace winter sports. (Who wouldn’t be inspired by millionaires claiming to be from a relatively poor country, competing in a sport that’s impossible to take up locally?) Time profiled Gary and Angelica as “athletes in love.”

At 47 and 48 years old, Gary and Angelica were the two oldest cross-country skiers in Olympic history. Or would’ve been, at least, if they had raced. After taking part in the 2014 opening ceremony, Gary and Angelica didn’t truly compete. Angelica didn’t even start her race; Gary quit his after fewer than 300 meters. Angelica reportedly crashed into a fence during a training run, suffering a broken nose; Gary cited illness as his reason for stopping. According to Angelica, she required multiple surgeries, while Gary suffered some sort of infection after showering and brushing his teeth with “brown water” in their Olympic Village room.

There’s no evidence that the di Silvestris’ misfortune was bogus, but it was convenient. Both got to say they were Olympic skiers from Dominica without having to live in Dominica or really ski in the Olympics.

Hubertus von Hohenlohe, Alpine Skiing, Mexico

At the past two Winter Olympics, the Mexican delegation has turned heads with uniforms that bring Mexico’s culture to the decidedly un-Mexican sport of downhill skiing. It was enough to impress The Ringer’s resident Extremely Proud Mexican, Shea Serrano:

The man who designed these uniforms, however, does not come from a Mexican lineage. His name is Hubertus von Hohenlohe, and he is descended from German royalty.

His father’s side of the family, the House of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, is old-timey royalty, as it used to rule a small principality in what is now northeast Germany. His mother’s side is more capitalist royalty, as his great-uncle, Giovanni Agnelli, founded Fiat. Von Hohenlohe is one-eighth Mexican; his father built resorts and brought the Volkswagen brand to Mexico, and wanted his child to have a unique birthplace. “We always wanted to have a one member of the family who was Mexican,” von Hohenlohe told Time. “So they chose that I was going to be born in Mexico.”

He lived there until he was 4 and currently spends most of his time in Liechtenstein, living a few weeks each year at a house in Cabo San Lucas. However, he speaks Spanish and told Time that he considers his lifestyle more “Latin” than German.

Born of tremendous wealth, von Hohenlohe has spent his life doing whatever the hell he wants. USA Today referred to him as “a legendary partier.” His backstory is well summarized in this apparently self-produced video, showing his worst ski crashes backed by his best vocals:

His personal website focuses primarily on his photography, calling his work “mini-documentary movies of my life.” In 2005, he created an exhibition in which every image was a photo of himself. He took topless photos of a Lebanese skier that would later land her in hot water, a development that did not go over well in Lebanon.

He also sings. Here’s his 2013 song “Higher Than Mars,” in which he tells a woman that her “love is a dream, better than photography and downhill racing.” He describes his new song, “Austin,” as a critique of President Donald Trump’s comments about Mexico, although it feels more like an Austin tourism video.

And, of course, he has skied. He founded the Mexican Ski Federation in 1981 and went to the Olympics for the first time in 1984, finishing 26th in a slalom field with 66 competitors. He competed again in the 1988, 1992, and 1994 Games, and then took a long break from the Olympics, not competing again until 2010. He has skied in a record-setting 17 world championships, and his 30-year span between his first and last Olympic appearances are also a record. He got much worse at skiing over those 30 years. In 2010, he finished in 78th place out of 81 participants in the giant slalom. In 2014, he crashed and did not finish his race. But it’s just a hobby; he told GQ that he skis three days a week, and never during the summer.

Vanessa-Mae’s lawyers, in their defamation suit, cited the fact that von Hohenlohe had paid for organizers to put together qualifying races for him as evidence that it was legal for Vanessa-Mae to do so as well. He would have become the oldest Olympian ever if he’d qualified for the games in Pyeongchang, but didn’t manage it, instead serving as an official with the Mexican team. And yes, designing the uniforms.

Cynthia Denzler, Colombia, Alpine Skiing

Alessia Dipol, Togo, Alpine Skiing

Both of these young women were the first to represent their nations in the Winter Olympics, but neither had any significant connection to her country. They both sought exotic citizenships for the sole purpose of their skiing careers and turned to countries whose labor their fathers profited from.

A Colombian newspaper wrote a story about Cynthia Denzler with a headline that translates to, “Colombian representative at Vancouver 2010 does not know the taste of guava or Colombian coffee.” She was able to compete for Colombia because her father, a Swiss skier, had gained Colombian citizenship when he moved to the country 10 years earlier to open a clothing factory. He later realized that he could extend that citizenship to his daughter when she began her skiing career. She finished 51st of 55 competitors in the slalom.

Believe it or not, Dipol’s story is virtually identical: The Italian-born skier was able to gain Togolese citizenship because her father owned a clothing factory in the West African country. She had tried to take advantage of citizenship rules to advance her skiing career before the 2014 Games, spending two years representing India in international competition, and finished 55th in the giant slalom in Sochi—12 spots and 25 seconds better than Vanessa-Mae.

Bruno Banani, Luge, Tonga

During the 2018 opening ceremony, the eyes of the world fell on Pita Taufatofua, the Tongan cross-country skier who walked through the freezing Pyeongchang night shirtless with his well-oiled muscles glistening. He has skied for less than a year and has spoken inspirationally about how people can achieve anything if they put their minds to it—even a man from tropical Tonga who had never seen snow can make the Winter Olympics.

But Taufatofua is not the first Tongan to appear at the Winter Olympics. Four years ago, Bruno Banani took part in the luge competition in Sochi. His journey to the Olympics began with the wish of a dead king and a harebrained scheme from a guerrilla marketing company.

Banani, born Fuahea Semi, heard a radio ad saying that Tonga was looking to produce a luger because the island’s princess wanted to fulfill her late father’s dream of getting a Tongan into the Winter Olympics. Semi, a computer science student who dabbled in rugby, won a contest to become the lucky Tongan selected to give it a shot. But how could he raise money for expensive luge training? A Californian marketing company looking to make a name for itself came up with an idea: Semi could change his name to Bruno Banani, the name of an underwear company in Germany, a country where luge is extremely popular.

So the Tongan government changed Fuahea’s name, and the marketing company told Bruno Banani (the underwear company) about Bruno Banani (the luger). Bruno Banani (the underwear company) agreed to fund Bruno Banani’s (the luger) training and created a backstory for Bruno Banani (the luger). Bruno Banani (the underwear company) would sell an underwear line called “Coconut Power,” claiming that Bruno Banani (the luger) had a father who farmed coconuts. This wasn’t true—Bruno Banani’s (the luger) father farms cassava.

This didn’t go over well, as Banani was called a “gimmick,” “hoax,” and “scam.” The IOC especially did not like it: The committee goes to great lengths to ensure that only companies that pay the IOC large sums of money can have their names appear at the games. Thomas Bach, now the IOC’s president, called Banani’s name change “perverse,” but acknowledged that the IOC couldn’t bar any athletes merely based on their legal name.

Banani ended up finishing 33rd out of 39 competitors in Sochi. He said he loved luge and that his name would always be Bruno Banani—“this is the name that made history for me,” he told ESPN. But he hasn’t raced since the Sochi Games.

This story doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the rest on this list. Fuahea Semi was not a wealthy person exploiting the Olympics’ loopholes to check off that box on his résumé. But Fuahea Semi didn’t make it to the Winter Olympics—Bruno Banani did. You can make the Olympics despite being underqualified if you’re not super-wealthy, but you might have to literally assume the identity of a rich person to do so.