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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

South African Olympic committee criticized after denying teenager ski spot at Sochi

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - Teenager Sive Speelman might have been South Africa's version of "Eric the Eel" at the Sochi Olympics, the feel-good story of the games.

The 18-year-old slalom skier is from a rural and impoverished corner of a country where snow is rare and Alpine skiers even rarer — especially ones that are black. But despite qualifying for a place at the Winter Games, he won't be competing.

South Africa's national Olympic committee has decided that Speelman isn't good enough, denying him a chance to ski alongside the best in the world in Sochi even though he was invited by the IOC.

The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee's decision to deny Speelman his place is being fiercely criticized at home, with SASCOC accused of crushing a young athlete's dreams and ignoring the Olympic ideal.

"What a sad day. Sive Speelman qualified to compete at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, but SASCOC has denied him the opportunity to race and raise South Africa's flag," Alex Heath, a three-time Winter Olympian from South Africa and Speelman's coach, wrote on his Facebook page. "It is an embarrassment to sport and the Olympic ideals."

SASCOC announced Thursday that Speelman wouldn't be participating in Sochi despite being allocated a place by the IOC and international skiing federation, according to the head of the South African snow sports federation.

"Any other nation in the world would jump at that opportunity and I'm as puzzled as many people are, but we have to respect the decision of the Olympic committee," Snow Sport SA president Peter Pilz said. "It's actually a dream story that's come true and is just what South Africa needs at this point in time. And it's just sad."

Despite the offer to compete from Olympic officials, SASCOC ruled Speelman didn't meet its own strict standards.

"SASCOC will continue to adhere to its selection policies in order to ensure participation ... is of the highest quality," the national committee said, announcing it "unfortunately will not be delivering him to the Winter Olympic Games."

Speelman's hometown in the mountainous part of the Eastern Cape province is one of few places in South Africa where snow falls. His school offered skiing as a sport, almost unheard of in a country far more renowned for beaches and hot open plains, and warm-weather sports like cricket.

Although ranked outside the top 2,000 skiers in the world, Speelman battled to gather enough points to be eligible for a lower qualifying standard in the slalom and earned a place for Sochi. SASCOC didn't have to choose between him and anyone else, either, as he was South Africa's only contender for the Winter Games. But SASCOC turned down his spot without consulting the national ski federation, Pilz said.

"It's not an easy qualification. Up to the 19th of January he was competing, racing in Europe to meet this qualification," Pilz said. "I would have appreciated an opportunity to put Sive's ... motivation across (to SASCOC)."

According to the IOC's latest list of qualifying countries, South Africa would have been one of only four African nations at the Sochi Olympics; Morocco, Togo and Zimbabwe also have athletes who have qualified.

Eric Moussambani, who is from Equatorial Guinea, received worldwide attention at the 2000 Sydney Games. Dubbed "Eric the Eel," he swam in the 100-meter freestyle, but finished well behind the top swimmers.

Other notable Olympians who gained fame due to their not-so-great performances include Eddie Edwards, a British ski jumper who was named "Eddie the Eagle" during the 1988 Calgary Games, and Hamadou Djibo Issaka, a rower from Niger labeled "The Sculling Sloth" at the 2012 London Olympics.

South Africa has sent athletes to every Winter Games since Lillehammer in 1994, the first following the country's readmission to the IOC after apartheid. It has never won a Winter Games medal.

Supporters have started a Facebook campaign titled "Sive Speelman's Olympic Dream."

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Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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