Sunday, February 28, 2010

Pakistan's first Winter Olympian conquer

WHISTLER, B.C.– In his quest to become an Olympian, Muhammad Abbas first had to tame a mountain beast called Malam Jabba.

High above northwest Pakistan's Swat valley, Malam Jabba's runs were so wild the International Ski Federation refused to certify them for competition until a bulldozer smoothed out some of the most dangerous stretches.

It made no difference to Abbas. He was born and raised in the Karakoram, a monstrous range that cuts across northeast Pakistan and includes K2, the world's second-highest peak.

As a village boy, he learned to race on skis that he chiseled and planed out planks hewed from forest firs and beech trees. He tied the strips of wood to rubber boots.

For the poor son of a troubled nation, where a corps of Olympic believers was determined to make history by sending the first Pakistani athlete to a Winter Games, Malam Jabba might have been an ideal training ground. But the Taliban seized the mountain, 150 km north of the capital

Islamabad, in the summer of 2008. By year's end, they controlled the whole Swat valley.

The Talibs' severe reading of the holy Koran permitted no place for a ski resort. They torched the luxury hotel and lifts, built with Austrian help, sending up in flames any hope that Malam Jabba would be a world-class site for alpine competition.

Swat, once a place so peaceful and stunningly beautiful that tourists called it the Switzerland of South Asia, suddenly had more in common with the ruins of Bosnia.

War has shadowed the Olympics from the beginning. But the ancient Greeks wanted to make sure human conflict did not get in the way of good sportsmanship.

In 776 BC, the kings of Elis, Pisa and Sparta signed a treaty establishing the tradition of a truce, or Ekecheiria, so that athletes, trainers, artists, and spectators could safely reach Olympus and make it home alive.

The International Olympic Committee says it has revived the ancient concept of an Olympic truce "with the view to protecting, as far as possible, the interests of the athletes and sport in general, and to encourage searching for peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts around the world."

In the real world, ideals of truce and peace were just a pipe dream these last two weeks. Hours before the Olympic flame, lit in the name of peace, ignited Vancouver's cauldron, thousands of Canadian, U.S. and allied troops launched their biggest offensive in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001.

U.S. Special Forces helicopters attacked a convoy in Afghanistan on Feb. 21, expecting to kill guerrillas fleeing the fighting. Instead, they massacred up to 27 civilians. The force commander apologized, but national anger was stoked. On Feb. 20, Pakistan's air force bombed a suspected militant base in South Waziristan, where the war was supposed to be over, killing 30 people.

Idealists who hoped for restraint on foreign battlefields during the Winter Games, and demand a bigger push for peace from the Olympics, may overestimate the tradition of the truce.

"That was to protect the games," says Bruce Kidd, who heads the University of Toronto's Faculty of Physical Education and Health. "It never pretended to, or effected an end to war, or a cessation of war.

"The ancient Greeks were not so naïve that they thought that even a powerful oracle at Delphi could bring war to an end."

But Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat considered the father of the modern Olympics, believed that pitting countries against one another in stadiums could promote enough cultural understanding to keep them off battlefields.

"We hope that by bringing people together, through sport and culture, people will respect each other more," says Kidd, a former Olympic athlete in track and field who is in Canada's Sports Hall of Fame.

"Or at least learn to talk to each other with respect, and as a result, less frequently resort to violence and armed combat as a way of resolving disputes." The contest between combat and sport is still undecided, but de Coubertin's philosophy has been severely tested.

Since the start of the modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, world wars forced the cancellation of three Olympiads: in 1916, 1940 and 1944. Invasions, including the Soviet assaults on Hungary in 1956 and Afghanistan in 1979, provoked Olympic boycotts.

"In the Golden Age there was an Olympic truce and all warfare stopped during the period of the games, [but] after two thousand years of civilization, we stop the games and continue our wars," IOC president Avery Brundage lamented when the 1956 games were almost cancelled.

Olympic purists also complain the games are as much about moving merchandise and providing positive branding opportunities to corporations as sport and goodwill.

Pakistan is one country where the Olympics is not a commercial enterprise. Fierce courage against enormous odds got Abbas to the slopes of Whistler, not any big-name logos.

He is the second of seven children, born to an air force security guard who retired to farming in the village of Naltar, about 50 kilometers from Gilgit in the Karakoram mountains.

The local ski hill was about 500 metres long, with a 100-metre drop – good enough to turn Abbas' father, Gulab Shah, into a national champion in a country where skiing is trifling amusement up against passions like cricket and soccer.

Abbas lived for the slopes. While other village kids were satisfied sliding through the snow on crude planks, Abbas used a plane to make skis that he strapped to ordinary boots with rope and rubber bands.

Zahid Farooq, now a retired air force colonel from the southern city of Lahore, discovered Abbas in 1996 while training Pakistan air force pilots in mountain survival.

The village's 1,200 families were so badly off, "they were self-sufficient in children – nothing else," says Farooq, Abbas' coach.

Impressed by his burning desire to ski, Farooq and other air force officers chose Abbas for one of eight pairs of proper skis and boots scrounged from donations.

Abbas' race in the Olympic giant slalom Tuesday was his first competition this season. He didn't have money to compete elsewhere.

The Pakistan Ski Federation figured that spending between $6,000 and $8,000 on training might move him five or so places up the rankings. Pakistani ski and air force officials decided the money was better invested in the next generation.

So they bought ski equipment for the kids coming up, Farooq says.

In 2003, Abbas' backers sent Abbas to Japan for 15 days of training. He could only race abroad if he found free room and board, which restricted him to one or two competitions a year.

Four years later, the qualification deadline for the Vancouver Olympics bearing down fast, the federation sent Abbas to Austria for 15 days, with a Macedonian coach. He got into two more races.

Last year, he received six weeks' training under an Austrian coach, with races in Iran, Lebanon and Turkey. Then he was thrown into the Olympic fire. He placed 79th, better than two skiers.

"There was a lot of pressure from back home and people were emphasizing that he must finish the race," his coach says.

And that he did, on a day when a titan of the sport, American Bode Miller, tripped up on a gate and was listed under "Did Not Finish Run" along with 15 other racers. Three more didn't even start. "It was awesome," Abbas says. "I wanted to bring Pakistan's name to people's attention in a positive way."

He won't leave the Vancouver Olympics a loser. He led a country at war into its first Winter Games and proved Pakistanis could challenge the best. Now Pakistan hopes to send six athletes, including women, to Sochi, Russia in 1014.

And for that Muhammad Abbas is a champion. Courtesy Thestar

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