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How Did Saudi Arabia Make it to the Winter Olympics?

In a country where temperatures can be scorching hot, and with snow slopes nowhere to be seen, Saudi Arabia reaching the Winter Olympics was unlikely. But with cash and vision, the Gulf country has made it happen.

Fayik Abdi became the first person to represent Saudi Arabia at the Winter Olympics

There's always a first time in sports. History was, and still is, made by new countries. But making history in the Olympics doesn't necessarily mean gold, it often means just being there alongside other nations.

For decades, the Winter Games were the exclusive preserve of "winter sports nations," but that is changing. In Beijing, two warm-weather countries are making their debut.

Saudi Arabia, where temperatures average 26 degrees Celsius (78 degrees Fahrenheit) across a year, is one of them. The other is Haiti. But Saudi Arabia is not the first Middle Eastern country to attend the Winter Olympics: Jordan, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq have all previously sent athletes.

Fayik Abdi is the man who broke new ground for the Saudis in Beijing, having successfully competed in the giant slalom in alpine skiing on Sunday.

"I'm so proud to be the first one to represent my country and the Gulf countries in the Winter Games." Abdi told DW prior to the competition. "Many participants here are surprised that a Saudi player will ski in this Olympics. But I found their reaction normal, as it's our first appearance ever."

Starting on the slopes

The 24-year-old found his passion for skiing in Lebanon, where his mother taught him how to ski when he was 4. During his childhood, skiing was just a hobby. But when Abdi got older, he wanted to take the sport seriously. He started traveling to the Swiss Alps in search of slopes, as he didn't have the access to the sport living in his country. 

In 2016, Abdi moved to the US state of Utah to continue his studies. It was the perfect place for him to practice skiing until he graduated.

Flag bearer Fayik Abdi of Team Saudi Arabia carries their flag during the opening ceremony

Fayik Abdi carried his nation's flag during the opening ceremony

The Saudi Winter Sports Federation was established in 2020, a decision made by Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al Faisal, the president of the Saudi Olympic Committee. Like many sport federations and clubs in the kingdom, the federation is supported by the royal family. 

In May 2021, the federation launched a call for skiers and snowboarders to represent the kingdom in Beijing. A few weeks later, seven athletes were chosen on the basis of videos they submitted. Most of the applicants had some winter sports experience and were living outside Saudi Arabia, which made it easier for them to hit the ski slopes.

"We started our training camp in July, first in Austria then Switzerland, Sweden, Italy and at last Montenegro," Abdi explained. "They hired two coaches for us, Daniel Sanz from Spain and Lukas Partl from Czech Republic, to help us get the required points for qualifications. Sanz and Partl played a big role in our success and they lifted our skills to a different level."

Pushed for time

COVID-19 made it challenging for Abdi and his friends. When they started their training camp, there were 11 months left until the Olympics and none of them had trained for a major event like that before. The time frame appeared too tight, but there was no other way. 

Of the seven athletes, three achieved the required points to go to Beijing. But because of their late participation in the qualification process, Saudi Arabia got just one ticket to Beijing. Abdi was the chosen one.

The Saudis are following in the footsteps of less traditional winter sports nations like Egypt, Senegal, the Cayman Islands and Jamaica, who have all featured at the Winter Olympics.

The Jamaican men's bobsled team wrote history at the Calgary Games in 1988 as the first Caribbean nation to go to the Winter Olympics. Elements of that story appear in Saudi Arabia's path to becoming the first country in the Gulf region to do the same, with little buildup.

Why now for Saudi Arabia?

The Saudi's first participation in the Winter Games brings back memories of the nation's first Olympic appearance in Munich's Summer Games in 1972. The purported vision of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is to explore new industries and encourage people in Saudi to be more active. He believes participation in Beijing will help achieve that goal.

Saudi Arabia has faced criticism for its human rights record in recent years, as the kingdom threw money into hosting major events such as Formula 1 and investing large sums into the Premier League. Not to forget: a boxing match between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. in 2019.

A report by human rights NGO Grant Liberty said Saudi Arabia has spent $1.5 billion on "sportwashing,"an effort to use the sporting competitions to improve its image.

The Saudi Winter Sports Federation has had royal backing from the beginning. But it is still searching for business investors to build a planned indoor ski resort, which would help provide vital training access.

A tourist city is planned in northern Saudi Arabia, and Nadhmi Al-Nasr, CEO of the Neom Project, revealed a plan to build a ski resort there in the next two years. That's in addition to a private developer's plans to build the region's largest indoor ski slope in a Riyadh shopping mall.

But for Fayik Abdi, politics and business were put to one side when he carried his country's flag in the opening ceremony. He's hoping to send a message to Saudi Arabia's new generation.

"I wish that our presence in the current games in Beijing has already encouraged Saudis to go and try new sports in general and winter sports specifically. I hope that the winter sports will grow in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, [and we will] see more participants from my country in the next Winter Olympics," he said.

Courtesy: DW

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