Picture this: A Pakistani skier is hurtling down the slopes at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. “Come on, Muhammad, you can do it,” he says to himself. “Make your country proud.” A gold medal would be terrific and so would a silver or bronze, but Muhammad Abbas is a realistic man and knows it would be a great achievement, as the first Pakistani to ever compete in the Winter Olympics, just to finish the course ahead of the skier from India.
Abbas, 24, completed the two runs of the giant slalom in 79th place, about 43 seconds slower than the winner, Carlo Janko of Switzerland, but 14 seconds faster than India’s Jamyang Namgial, earning him a ticker-tape parade down the streets of Karachi. Perhaps even a date with Ayesha Gilani, Miss Pakistan World.
I’m not sure if Abbas was actually excited about finishing ahead of Namgial. Reporters didn’t get a chance to interview him, as he was busy carving the words “Pakistan Power” in the snow.
Namgial, one of three Winter Olympians from India, was last among skiers who completed the giant slalom. But he has plenty to be proud of. Not only did he make it to the bottom of the hill, he crossed the finish line with his entire head above the snow.
Yes, he didn’t fall on his face, sprain his ankle or suffer some other leg injury, like so many skiers who found themselves hobbling around Olympic Village on crutches, prompting one enterprising photographer to open a booth with a sign that said: “Get your Winter ‘Oh Limp’ Pics here!”
Just qualifying for the Winter Olympics was a major achievement for Namgial and cross-country skier Tashi Lundup. The Indian government doesn’t invest much money in winter sports, just a few million rupees or so, barely enough to cover the cost of importing snow from Russia.
Actually India does get some flakes in the northern regions –- and not just when the backpackers run their fingers through their hair. But with little financial support and inadequate equipment, it was quite a challenge for Namgial to learn to ski. If you don’t believe me, just try coming down a mountain slope with two cricket bats glued to your shoes.
Namgial deserves our admiration, as do the other Winter Olympians from warm-weather countries, athletes such as Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong of Ghana, Leyti Seck of Senegal and Robel Teklemariam of Ethiopia. Not only do they have little, if any, snow in their native countries, people think they’re crazy when they pour dried potato flakes down a hill.
Friend: “Hey man, why you wasting all this food?”
Athlete: “I’m not wasting it. I’m pretending it’s snow. The Ministry of Sports bought it for me.”
Friend: “You better not let them see you. I don’t think they knew what you meant when you asked them for training food.”
For Skiwell Phiri of Zambia, going to the Winter Olympics was an experience he’ll be telling his grandchildren about. I’m so glad he shared it with us through Twitter:
—“Just arrived in Vancouver. It’s so white over here -– and I’m not talkin bout the people.”
—“Brrrr … It’s freezin outside. I don’t know what’s crazier –- me coming here or Canadians complaining about global warming.”
—“Does anyone know if it’s safe to defrost my brain in the microwave?”
—“Whose idea was it to have the Winter Olympics in such a cold country anyway?”
—“I just met the Olympians from Ghana, Senegal and Ethiopia. They were in the main lounge of Olympic Village, huddled around the fireplace.”
—“It’s time to go home. I enjoyed the Winter Olympics, despite the weather. Maybe next time I’ll come as a competitor.”