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2010 Olympics: Abbas Skies His Way to Vancouver

Posted on February 22, 2010
Filed Under >Adil Najam, People, Sports
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Adil Najam

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.  (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.

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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.

27 Comments on “2010 Olympics: Abbas Skies His Way to Vancouver”

  1. Junaid says:
    February 23rd, 2010 12:21 am

    I had been waiting for this post from ATP. And it was worth the wait. Very informative and actually very inspiring.

  2. Jawad says:
    February 23rd, 2010 12:24 am

    Thanks for posting

    BTW, “(He) hails from Baltistan in the Northern Areas, which is also home to Pakistan’s top ski resort at Nalter” seems to imply that Naltar is in Baltistan. It is not. Of course both are in Northern Areas, now Gilgit-Baltistan.

  3. Adea says:
    February 23rd, 2010 12:54 am

    His run is tomorrow on 23rd Feb at 9:30 Vancouver time, the event was delayed.

    -Adeel
    Vancouver

  4. Hammad ul Haq says:
    February 23rd, 2010 1:19 am

    “It was an unspectacular run?”

    How did you get to know that?

  5. February 23rd, 2010 1:44 am

    My apologies for having misunderstood the caption from Associated Press picture (the first one in the post) which was, in fact, taken during a free skiing session on Monday and was not a competitive run as I misunderstood it to be. My thanks to readers for pointing out the mistake and noting that he will be competing Tuesday (i.e., later today). The text above has been corrected to reflect this.

    I certainly hope I will catch his performance on television today, but even if I do not, I will be rooting for him all day!

    Good Luck, Muhammad Abbas!

  6. February 23rd, 2010 1:49 am

    Some comments from the ATP Facebook Page:

    - “Well Done. Muhammad Abbas. Pakistan Zindabad.
    Zara namm ho tou yeh matti….”
    - “long live pakistan”
    - “Mashallah! our boys are naturally talented for almost every sport. Provided they are given proper training and facilities, im sure they can achieve alot more than that…”
    - “Log live Pakistan InshaALLAH”
    - “wow!!”

  7. Osman says:
    February 23rd, 2010 1:52 am

    Feels real good reading this.

    Thank you for the clarification.

    Good Luck Mohd. Abbas. You have already made us proud!

  8. Shahid says:
    February 23rd, 2010 2:06 am

    Makes my heart full of joy and hope !

    Go Abbas, may you bring laurels to our country.

  9. Aalia says:
    February 23rd, 2010 2:11 am

    Thank you so much for writing this and highlighting his story.

    With all the bad news on politics and extremism etc., it is so good to read about an ordinary Pakistani doing the best he can and being recognized by the world.

    Medal or not, go for your best Abbass. We are all rooting for you. Go Abbass, Go!

  10. Yasir Qadeer says:
    February 23rd, 2010 5:16 am

    With almost no facilities for winter sports in Pakistan, to the best of my knowledge, it is indeed a moment of sheer joy for all of us. We wish Muhammad Abbas best of luck in his journey of excellence in winter sports.

  11. tariq says:
    February 23rd, 2010 6:05 am

    what great news It does not matter what happens on tuesday for many of us you have alredy won a medal Abbas, I had no great interest in the winter games Adil you have changed it all and once again thanks to Atp for a great post.Shabaash and good luck

  12. Saadia says:
    February 23rd, 2010 8:57 am

    What an excellent post to read right as I wake up.

    Thanks for posting this ATP. And good luck to Abbass. You have already won our hearts.

  13. Aziz says:
    February 23rd, 2010 10:40 am

    Good luck Abbas. You make us all proud.

  14. shoxee says:
    February 23rd, 2010 10:42 am

    This is one special news.. good to know..

  15. Farrukh says:
    February 23rd, 2010 10:58 am

    Everytime I read such a story (and unfortunately it is only ATP that gives these stories the right treatment, most other blogs and newspapers are too busy with drawing room politics and pontification), I think that if only our government could understand just how much national pride and goodwill can be generated through sports, then they will invest more in it to create a sense of national identity and pride. What you guys here call Pakistaniat.

    I feel good all over because of Abbas. Thank you for this. And Good luck Muhammad Abbas.

  16. cynic says:
    February 23rd, 2010 2:00 pm

    Son, we do not have anything to eat as your father has been sick, can not afford his medicine but look on the bright side, Abbas is skiing in Whistler, Canada and it only cost around
    RS 2,000, 000.
    Yeeeeea, Mom i don’t feeel hungry any more.

    cheers

  17. Adeel Suhrwardy says:
    February 23rd, 2010 2:32 pm

    Pakistan’s first entry to winter olympics M. Abbas had his event today.
    Not a great result, but he managed to stay in race and finished it while 9 experienced skiers did not make it to the finish line. Comparitively speaking good result.

    http://www.vancouver2010.com/olympic-alpine-skiing/schedule-and-results/mens-giant-slalom-1st-run_asm030101zn.html

  18. Hammad ul Haq says:
    February 23rd, 2010 2:36 pm

    Abbas finished 89th out of a field of 103. Great accomplishment on two fronts. Though he was 21 seconds shy of the Swiss World Champion but:

    a) He was able to complete the race as 12 competitors failed to do so. Even, Bode Miller of USA failed to complete. Bode has won three medals in Vancouver 2010, one of each color.

    b) He made us proud by winning the little India Pakistan competition :p. The Indian finished in 91st position and was 8.50s slower than Abbas.

    We are proud of you (Abbas) … Sochi 2014 awaits you now!

  19. Talat says:
    February 23rd, 2010 3:40 pm

    @cynic.

    being cynic is one thing, being just plain mean is another.

    I hope you gave a piece of your roti to the hungry child!

  20. ZAFAR says:
    February 23rd, 2010 4:16 pm

    I agree with earlier comment about how much sports can do for national unity and goodwill. I hope our govt will also understand this. Seeing Paksitanis doing well makes all of us feel good and feel like we can do so too.

  21. Adnan Ahmad says:
    February 23rd, 2010 5:14 pm

    I hardly ever watch winter games but this is good to hear. Morning edition on NPR ran a flash news on this today. Just a quick thought, reinforcing what others have suggested, this reminds me of the first time I read Tarar’s travelogue ‘Hunza Daastan’ in high school and the part where he spends an evening at a local Pakistani climber’s house near K-2 and Nanga Parbat and how the climber tells Tarar and his son that he himself did not have the means to climb K-2 but earned a living helping Europeans climb and accompanied them to the last station on the mount.

    May Ski resorts prop up in Pakistan where they can and may the true talents of all pakistanis be fully realized one day whether it is driving in the sand or skiing or running on a track. The only impediment to this wish is the inept leadership of the country.

  22. SJH says:
    February 23rd, 2010 6:41 pm

    Well done Abbas bhai, we should all be very proud of you. People who don’t know how to ski have no idea what it takes to ski at this level – and I know since I’m from Karachi and learnt to ski in one of the flattest states in the US, Minnesota. This is hard hard work, very technical and very expensive. That he has done Pakistan proud in skiing is wonderful and we should rejoice.

  23. Sadiq says:
    February 23rd, 2010 10:32 pm

    Well done, Sir. We are proud of you

  24. Fatima Y says:
    February 24th, 2010 7:30 am

    Paki Snow Bunny Rock Star.

    Abbas has done us proud!

  25. ghazi says:
    February 24th, 2010 11:16 am

    Great job.
    Pakistan’s first entry to winter olympics.

  26. Farqaleet says:
    February 25th, 2010 4:51 am

    Wow; a story worth a movie, hope the sport gets following in Pakistan:)

  27. Shahid Rehman says:
    February 28th, 2010 10:41 am

    This is surely great ! to see Abbas at the vancouver Games,2010.
    PROUD TO BE PAKISTANI !
    Cheers !
    Shahid
    Islamabad,Pakistan

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