Everybody appreciates good losers. During the Olympics, we adore spectacular ones. Remember British ski jumper Eddie the Eagle or the 1988 Jamaican bobsledders? Such efforts are so amazingly futile that the athletes win fans' hearts, if no medals, and garner the kind of media adoration that even winners don't usually get.
This year's favorite in the unofficial popularity contest is Isaac Menyoli. The 29-year-old cross-country skier from Buea in snowless Cameroon his country's first-ever Winter Olympian wants the ballyhoo that comes with being bad. But unlike the crowd-pleasing losers of Games past, he doesn't want all the attention. He actually has something other than himself to promote: AIDS education.
The desire to do something seized Menyoli in 2000, when he traveled back to Cameroon from Wisconsin, where he has been studying architecture and working since 1994. Some aid workers had gone into Cameroon to teach sex education and AIDS prevention. But most locals wouldn't listen to the foreigners. Many said that HIV was a lie or a conspiracy. Yet some of Menyoli's friends had died and "I suspect AIDS was the case," he says. "But people said, 'No, it was witchcraft or voodoo.'"
Then last spring, he had an idea: he would ski in the Olympics. He had first seen cross-country on television, during Calgary in 1988, and tried the sport after moving to Wisconsin. (He also tried downhill but says, "Why would you want to go through that? I could slam into a tree and just die!") Though he wasn't much good, he thought he could do well enough to cause a stir. Then he could attempt a noble bait-and-switch, getting Cameroon's television or radio stations to give him air time to tell about his Olympic experiences and using that platform to talk to his countrymen about AIDS. Maybe they would listen to one of their own.
So Menyoli got in touch with the International Ski Federation, which told him to go to his national Olympic organization. "I was surprised that a Cameroonian could be interested," says Colonel Hamad Kalkaba Malboum, president of Cameroon's National Olympic and Sports Committee. "But I heard the idea and supported him." With his country's administrative backing and his own savings, Menyoli set off for Alaska and Canada last fall for his five required qualifying races. He placed last in four races and second-to-last in one, but finishing was all that mattered.
And so he goes to Salt Lake City, where he will line up for the 15-km classical race alongside some of his skiing heroes. He's looking forward to meeting World Cup leader Per Elofsson of Sweden, who is a gold-medal threat at every distance. And he wants to talk to the Italians; one of Menyoli's favorite cross-country moments was the finish of the Lillehammer men's relay, when Italy shocked the Norwegians at the line, winning by no more than a ski-tip.
Menyoli's Olympic effort has already cost him $15,000. ("If I had given the money straight to Africa," he says, "I probably wouldn't have saved many people.") Juggling work, training, home life and studies he's still working on his master's in architecture has been hard. Since the press first caught on to his feelgood tale, it has been even harder: "The media, they come calling, saying, 'I want the story!' ... I don't have time to train, to work." And there's a little pressure from home. His parents think the investments of time and money should pay off with a gold. Says Menyoli: "They don't really know what I'm doing."
A Cameroonian proverb says that when a man asks questions, he cannot avoid the answers. When Menyoli asked himself what would happen if he became an Olympian, he knew the answer. "I'm such an amateur skier," he says. "It's tough." But the sport isn't really the point. Menyoli's Olympic-sized ambition is. "I want to ski for a reason," he says. "I want to tell people that they really have to watch out, that AIDS is serious." He'll deserve a medal if he gets that message across.