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Skiing gold medal win ‘puts town in Ariège on map’

A small mountain town in the Ariège is celebrating that it has been “put on the map” after an Olympic athlete from the area won gold at Pyeongchang 2018.

Les Monts d’Olmes, and the Ariège (Occitanie) in general - has said it feels it is finally receiving “global visibility” after 19-year-old mogul skier Perrine Laffont, who is originally from the area, won gold in the women’s moguls event at the Winter Olympics last week.

Speaking to news site 20 Minutes, Henri Nayrou, the president of the local department council, said: “For us, this is an extraordinary highlight, and even more so because it was the first medal won for France. We often have a problem [here in the Ariège] that people do not know much about us, or know where we are. Before, we have often been confused with the Ardèche. Now, we will be much more obvious!”

In recent years, the mountain town of just under 153,000 inhabitants has become more well-known due to its location near the Tour de France cycling race route, but Nayrou has still sought to raise its profile further, and is especially happy with its association with Laffont.

Indeed, the fact that Laffont did not do as well four years ago at Sochi 2014 (when she aged just 15), and has now come back on top after also becoming the world Dual Mogul champion in 2017, is a narrative that works well for Nayrou.

“This character matches that of people round here,” he said. “An iron mentality and nerves of steel. We are not always the best or the most numerous, but we are tenacious, generous, and loyal. We want to be known, and Perrine is helping us so much.”

The town is set to welcome Laffont back from Pyeongchang this coming Sunday, and has planned a public party in her honour.

Nayrou has even suggested that the town might create a special “departmental medal” to give to Laffont, in honour of her achievement.

Laffont was indeed born in the nearby Pyrenéen town of Lavelanet, and is reported to have regularly used the skiing pistes in the nearby mountains as she discovered her aptitude and love for the sport.

Her association with the Ariège has reportedly seen her supported financially by the department (in an undisclosed sum) over the past five years, as her Olympic star has been rising.

Her father - originally from Niaux - is also reported to have been instrumental in the 23-piste Monts d’Olmes ski station installing a black run “mogul” piste. Before its association with Perrine, the station was not known for any especially high-level skiing, offering just 25km of pistes and 13 lifts.

The director of the site, Joan Montané, said: “This is like winning the lottery. We still do not know how much [Perrine] will affect regular customers and locals, but there is likely to be some impact, as visitors will want to see where she grew up. The [gold medal] title is great for her because she deserves her win, but it is also great for us. I am sure that lots of big ski stations envy us.”

Laffont is the first local ever to bring back a Winter Olympics medal, but is not the only well-known sports star - or Olympic medallist - from the region.

The cyclist Jacques Dupont, who hailed from Lézat-sur-Lèze, was the first local to bring home an Olympic medal, from the London summer Games in 1948; and the sprinter Claude Piquemal, from Siguer, brought home two bronze medals from his summer races in Tokyo in 1964, and Mexico in 1968.

Similarly, Laffont was born just three months after another local boy - former footballer and racing driver Fabien Barthez (also from Lavelanet) - helped the national football team take home the World Cup for France in 1998.

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