By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Five athletes from Birmingham to far-flung Utah have been handed the responsibility of helping Ireland make a rare mark at the Sochi Games next month.
In a country of 4.5 million people where winters often pass without snowfall, Ireland is for the first time sending a team made up exclusively from the estimated 70 million people with Irish heritage who live abroad.
There is the San Diego-born teen snowboarder, the skeleton rider from Vancouver, the downhill skiers who live thousands of miles apart in Utah and the British city of Birmingham and the Ontario-based cross country skier with Irish and Czech roots.
"My accent needs a bit of work but my grandfather is from Dublin, grandmother is from Drogheda. I'm honoured to compete for Ireland, it's going to be a blast," 16-year-old snowboarder Seamus O'Connor said at the team's launch on Wednesday.
"When Sochi was nominated for the 2014 Games my dad thought it would be quite poetic if an American-born athlete could represent Ireland competing in my mother's homeland."
O'Connor, who holidays in the west of Ireland, represents the best chance of first ever Winter Games medal for Ireland having turned professional and signed a sponsorship deal with Nike at the age of just 13, although the Utah-based half pipe and slopeside rider says Sochi may come an Olympics too soon.
Tapping into such an expansive network is nothing new. Jack Charlton, himself a World Cup winner with England, famously recruited a slew of British-born players with Irish ancestry during the golden football era of the late 80s and early 90s.
Ireland's government has also hosted Davos-style conferences to listen to the cream of its diaspora while "The Gathering", a year-long campaign to lure visitors with Irish roots, helped tourism figures hit a five-year high in 2013.
As the economic crisis brings new waves of emigration, Olympic Council of Ireland president Pat Hickey estimated that the influx of foreign nationals in recent times means that close to one in three members of the team that heads to the Rio Games in 2016 will have been born in Ireland to foreign parentage.
For one member of the Sochi team, the idea of representing the country he was born in was never even a consideration.
"Ireland's my home, I would not consider anywhere else as home," said Utah-based Conor Lyne, who in contrast to team mate O'Connor speaks in a near pitch-perfect Irish accent.
Like skeleton rider Sean Greenwood, who spent summers working in Dublin restaurants, downhill slalom competitor Lyne, an avid Gaelic Games and rugby fan, returns to his father's hometown in county Kerry for a month or two every year.
The 20-year-old engineering student, currently on a two-year break from his studies to prepare for the Games, hopes the diaspora Olympians will inspire more interest in Winter sports, at home and abroad.
"The level isn't that high in Ireland yet so you have to reach out to these people based elsewhere to bring that level up and that's when you get the younger crowd say, oh wow, I want to represent Ireland at the Olympics too." (Editing by Pritha Sarkar)