Earlier today, Mohammad Abbas of Pakistan completed a downhill free run in Whistler, British Columbia (picture below). Tomorrow he will compete in the Men’s Giant Slalom at the Vancouver Winter Olympics 2010.Â (See followup post with more pictures, here).
It is unlikely that he will be in the run for a medal, but his participation will be noteworthy for Pakistan and Pakistanis.
I must confess I am not exactly hot on winter sports. But I have been following the television coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver hoping to catch glimpse of the sole, and first, Pakistani skier to have made it to the Winter Olympics. I have not been able to do so yet, but I have found some interesting photographs and press coverage on Pakistan’s Muhammad Abbas that is worth sharing.
The basics are as follows: Muhammad Abbas is 24 years of age, weights 55kg (121 lbs), is 168cm (5ft 6in) tall, hails from Gilgit-Baltistan in the Northern Areas, which is also home to Pakistan’s top ski resort at Nalter, near Gilgit, and Abbas was part of a group of eight Pakistani skiers who participated in a 2-month tour of Europe early last year (sponsored by the Ski Federation of Pakistan) in a bid to qualify for the Winter Olympics. A skier needs 120 International sking points to qualify, and Abbas was the only one of the eight who was able to do so.
But the story on the story, at least as told by the Associated Press is far more interesting:
Pakistan’s first Winter Olympian started skiing by strapping two planks of pine wood to his rubber boots. He honed his skills not through formal training, but by simply studying other skiers on a tiny slope near his home. Look at Muhammad Abbas now. He’ll have real ski boots and real skis as he heads down the same course as Bode Miller and Aksel Lund Svindal in the giant slalom race Tuesday at the Vancouver Games.
From wooden skis to this?
The 24-year-old Abbas is ranked 3,764th in the world in giant slalom. But by competing in off-the-beaten-path competitions, the ones the top skiers only attended when they were younger – if at all – he accumulated enough International Ski Federation points to meet the Olympic standards. Abbas has not taken a place away from a medal contender in one of skiing’s strongest nations: they still have their quota of four racers for each event. Instead, opening the door to developing nations gives them an incentive to build their programs and accelerate their athletes’ progress – and also meet the Olympic ideal that taking part is as important as winning.
There are quite a few lower-ranked skiers in the giant slalom field, like Mexico’s Hubertus Von Hohenlohe (5,067th), India’s Jamyang Namgial (4,697th) and Cayman Islands’ Dow Travers (4,631th). “It’s a very inclusive sport, and shows that interest in the sport worldwide is huge,” FIS secretary general Sarah Lewis said. “It’s one of the features that makes the games colorful and exciting.”
Abbas definitely has a colorful story. He grew up in a village in northern Pakistan, an area surrounded by mountains. His family couldn’t afford to buy him traditional skis, so his dad carved a pair out of wood. The lift at the local slope only went up 500 meters – the downhill run at Whistler is 3,105 meters _ so he skied the same smooth terrain over and over. He became quite proficient on that slope, on those homemade skis. “I was the best out of the lot,” Abbas proudly said through his coach and interpreter, Zahid Farooq.
These days, Abbas uses Atomic skis and equipment donated to him through his country’s ski federation, along with the Pakistan Air Force, which Abbas is currently enlisted, his primary duty being to ski. Abbas has two sets of skis, in fact – one for competition and one for training. He waxes and tunes his own skis, a job the top competitors typically hire a technician to do. Farooq arranges the training, does the cooking and cleaning and serves as an interpreter for Abbas, who is still working on his English.
Excited to be here, representing his country? Farooq says Abbas thinks this is an “unbelievable honor.” Can he compete with skiers like Miller, Ligety and Svindal? Sure, Farooq relays, if they all had to be on wooden skis. Abbas began to laugh, his little joke losing nothing in translation. For Abbas, this experience is hardly a joke. He’s not a medal threat, he won’t wind up at the top of the leaderboard, but it’s not about that. His ambitions are to soak up the moment and gain a few helpful hints to bring back to his tiny slope and inspire others.
Farooq, a retired military officer, recognized Abbas had talent as an 8-year-old kid on those wooden skis. So he lined Abbas up with real skis and collected funds to send him off for real training. At 17, Abbas spent 15 days in Japan, learning the technique of the slalom from a specialist. Hardly enough time. With no travel budget, Abbas only attended a handful of events each year. Small events at that. He would go to a military-and-police giant slalom race in Switzerland, or an entry-league FIS competition in Iran.
His results were unspectacular. He needed more training.
So, Farooq rounded up more funds, enough to send his star pupil, along with seven other kids, to Austria in 2009 to work with some professional coaches. It was an intensive six-week training session, a crash course in the slalom. With proper training, Abbas began to make great strides. He even finished eighth in a lower-tier race in Lebanon last March, his only top-10 finish at a FIS-sanctioned competition. That helped get him to Whistler, with the big names in skiing, going down the same Olympic mountain.