WINTER OLYMPICS

Fernández to carry flag at Sochi

European figure skating champ is biggest medal hope at Winter Olympics

Spain's Javier Fernández greets the audience after competing the in men's short program at the European Figure Skating Championships in Budapest.
Spain's Javier Fernández greets the audience after competing the in men's short program at the European Figure Skating Championships in Budapest.Darko Bandic / AP

From his base in Toronto, figure skater Javier Fernández on Tuesday posted a 17-second video message after learning he had been chosen to carry the Spanish flag at the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month.

“It is an honor for me,” said the 22-year-old, looking tired after the flight back from Budapest where he made history by retaining his European figure skating title at the weekend. The world bronze medalist went on to send his greetings to followers of winter sports and congratulate his fellow teammates.

Also on Tuesday, the Spanish Olympic Committee (COE) approved the lineup of the team it will be sending to Russia. It will comprise 21 athletes — 16 in snow events and five on the ice — though the eligibility of four of these still need to be confirmed by their respective international federations. If they are, it will be the largest delegation Spain has ever sent, breaking the record set in Grenoble in 1968, when 19 athletes competed — a fact that says a lot about the state of Spanish winter sports.

Despite the numbers, Fernández is clearly Spain’s best chance of a medal at the Sochi Games, which run from February 7 to 23. After finishing 14th at the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver, he has had a terrific last couple of years, picking up two European titles and a world bronze, as well as the confidence that comes from being counted among the elite of men’s figure skating.

It will be the largest delegation Spain has ever sent, breaking the record set in Grenoble in 1968

Of the rest of the team, only snowboarder Queralt Castellet, who was forced to withdraw from the final of the halfpipe in Vancouver four years ago through injury, has a realistic chance of the medal.

However, some in the know would widen the hopeful category to include fellow snowboarder Lucas Eguibar, who managed a silver in a snowboard cross World Cup event earlier this month.

The biggest optimists would also add the name of Carolina Ruiz, the first Spaniard to win a World Cup downhill event and who at 32 years of age will be competing in her fourth Games.

If any of them, or their teammates, does achieve a medal, it would be the first to be won by a Spaniard since Blanca Fernández Ochoa took bronze in the slalom in Albertville in 1992 and only the third in a history after her brother Paquito Fernández Ochoa’s slalom gold in Sapporo in 1972.

German-born Spanish cross-country skier Johann “Juanito” Mühlegg only won disgrace for his adopted nation after taking three golds at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games before his subsequent disqualification for doping.

The Spanish delegation is small compared to those of the big winter sports powers. Many of those selected have competed before and many others train outside of Spain. This time round the team, which features eight cross-country and alpine skiers, the most traditional disciplines, has grown along two paths: in figure skating, in which a male-female pair and Javier Raya will also compete alongside Fernández; and in some of the newer disciplines, such as freestyle skiing, in which Katia Griffiths will feature, and snowboarding.

It is in this latter discipline that two of the athletes awaiting official confirmation are looking to compete. The other two are those hoping to represent Spain in the biathlon, the event that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. COE president Alejandro Blanco has expressed his confidence that they will all be in Sochi, ready to parade behind the flag of Javier Fernández.

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