Moroccan dual Olympian hoping to make Arab World proud in Pyeongchang

Double Olympian Samir Azzimani hopes he will win new fans for his sport across the Arab world when he competes in Friday's cross-country skiing event. (AFP)
Updated 15 February 2018
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Moroccan dual Olympian hoping to make Arab World proud in Pyeongchang

LONDON: Samir Azzimani will make history on Friday when he becomes the Arab world’s first dual-sport Olympian.
The Moroccan competed in alpine skiing at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and returns to sport’s grandest stage when he races in men’s cross-country skiing in Pyeongchang on Friday afternoon.
Azzimani was born 40 years ago on the outskirts of Paris to Moroccan parents.
His father was a mechanic and his mother a cleaner. When he was 5, with his mother struggling to care for the family, he was taken to a home for underprivileged children.
It was there, while on a winter holiday camp, he first experienced skiing. It was not love at first sight.
“To be honest, it wasn’t really exciting to go there because I was ill-equipped, without proper gloves and other suitable skiwear,” he told Arab News this week from Pyeongchang.
“Also, skis are heavy and, for a child, walking with ski boots was awful.”
His enthusiasm grew, though, and despite the expensive nature of the sport a social program allowed him to continue visiting the slopes.
Soon he was addicted, trying to improve, until one day, while sitting on a chairlift, he saw a ski race below.
“My heart started to beat faster. I started to dream that one day I would be a ski champion.”
When the social program ended, Azzimani’s dalliance with the slopes did, too — at least temporarily.
Ten years passed before he would return to the snow, prompted by watching the Morocco flag enter the Théâtre des Cérémonies at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville.
In 2010, his dream became reality when, as his country’s sole representative in Vancouver, he acted as flagbearer for Morocco en route to finishing 44th in the regular slalom.
A series of injuries soon followed, however, and Azzimani was forced to undergo surgery, ruling him out of the 2014 Games in Sochi. Taking time off from his job as a ski instructor in France and trying to regain his fitness, he completed endurance training in Morocco. He adapted to his surroundings by descending sand dunes with skis and poles and using wheeled-skis on the burning asphalt roads that scythe through the Sahara Desert.
Such improvization would prove another critical point of his sporting career. He revelled in the interest of bewildered bystanders and the occasional bedouin.
“I’ve been training in Morocco since 2013 and it’s become a kind of tradition for me,” said Azzimani, who was his country’s flagbearer again at last Friday’s Opening Ceremony.
Samir Azzimani was once again his country's flagbearer at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, having had the honor during the 2010 Games in Vancounver. (AFP)
“The people are really curious regarding what I have on my feet. They’ve never seen a roller-skier in their life, so they usually stop on the side of the road to take video or photos. Then they ask what the sport is all about and why I do it.
“It gives me a lot of satisfaction to enjoy this different environment and different culture. It’s very different to the Nordic one — and it also gives me a lot of vitamin D from the sun too.”
Azzimani’s change of discipline has been far from easy.
While plenty of Olympians have competed in more than one sport, few have done so in two events so unalike.
Not only did he have to shed several kilograms, he had to totally rewire his muscles, switching from explosive strength to cardiovascular, and alter his mindset.
“Most dual-athletes choose sports that utilize similar skillsets, making the cross-over that bit easier. What I am doing is totally in opposition to my original sport, so my body had to be transformed. I also had to start being patient, focus more on saving my energy, while also lowering my level of arrogance,” he said, adding jokingly, “It was really tough, but I managed it.”
Now, with the training complete and the sand swapped for snow, the hour has arrived for Azzimani to return to center stage. His expectations ahead of today’s event, which starts on Friday morning KSA time, are realistic.
Once known as the “Couscous Rocket”, he accepts his new discipline is “not really spectacular to watch”, yet hopes he can win a few new fans if nothing else.
“To be honest it feels as if I have never done the Olympics before,” he said. “I have the same excitement and same feeling of adventure, but this time with a little more experience.
“I hope the Arab community will get behind me and enjoy learning a little about a sport they likely don’t know much about,” he added. “Arab countries taking part in the Winter Games are not common so, for this reason, I feel incredibly proud to represent not only Morocco but the entire Arab World. For me, representing is not enough: I have to give the best I have. My goal here in Pyeongchang is to be within 12 minutes of the Olympic champion. And, of course, not to be last over the line.”


Algeria sink Senegal in fiery final to claim second Africa Cup of Nations

Updated 47 min 19 sec ago
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Algeria sink Senegal in fiery final to claim second Africa Cup of Nations

  • Bounedjah gave Algeria a dream start in the second minute
  • For Senegal, who lost to Algeria by the same scoreline in the group stage, the long wait for a first continental crown goes on

CAIRO: Baghdad Bounedjah’s early goal propelled Algeria to a first Africa Cup of Nations title in 29 years after a fiery 1-0 victory over Sadio Mane’s Senegal in Friday’s final in Cairo.

Bounedjah gave Algeria a dream start in the second minute when his deflected shot looped over Senegal goalkeeper Alfred Gomis, and it proved enough for the 1990 champions to lift the trophy on foreign soil for the first time.

For Senegal, who lost to Algeria by the same scoreline in the group stage, the long wait for a first continental crown goes on as coach Aliou Cisse, the captain of the 2002 runners-up, again fell short in the final.

It was the first title-decider to feature two African coaches since 1998, with Algeria boss Djamel Belmadi completing a whirlwind 12 months at the helm after inheriting a side that failed to make it out of the group stage two years ago.

With defensive rock Kalidou Koulibaly suspended for Senegal, Salif Sane deputised at the back and Ismaila Sarr was recalled in attack, while Belmadi kept faith in the same side that overcame Nigeria with an injury-time free-kick from Riyad Mahrez.

Senegal had understandably feared the absence of Napoli star Koulibaly, banned after two bookings in the knockout rounds, although the towering Sane was desperately unlucky as Algeria grabbed the lead with scarcely a minute played.

As Bounedjah took aim from 20 yards his effort smacked off Sane and arced high into the air before dropping underneath the crossbar and beyond a static Gomis, sparking delirious celebrations from both players and fans, some of whom arrived for the final on military planes provided by the Algerian government.

It was the first time Gomis had conceded in almost 400 minutes in Egypt having replaced the injured Edouard Mendy ahead of Senegal’s final group game.

Henri Saivet, who missed a penalty in the 1-0 victory over Tunisia, tried to catch Rais Mbohli out with a free-kick while Mbaye Niang fizzed a powerful drive just over as Senegal gradually showed signs of life before the half ended with both sets of players embroiled in a scuffle as they headed for the tunnel.

Senegal thought they had won a penalty on the hour when Cameroonian referee Alioum Alioum pointed to the spot for a suspected handball by Adlene Guedioura, but the official reversed his decision after a VAR review.

Niang rounded an advancing Mbohli after a searching ball through from Cheikhou Kouyate but the forward sliced wide of the target from a tough angle, with the Algeria ‘keeper then acrobatically tipping over a rasping drive from Youssouf Sabaly.

The Desert Foxes started to look jaded as Senegal brought on fresh legs in Krepin Diatta and Mbaye Diagne, but Youcef Belaili nearly made it 2-0 when his cross brushed the head of a defender and skimmed the roof of the net.

Sarr blazed over on the volley as Algeria clung on to their advantage in the closing minutes, the final whistle greeted by an outpouring of raw emotion as the North Africans emerged worthy winners of the expanded 24-team event.

On Saturday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman telephoned Algeria’s interim president Abdelkader Bensalah to congratulate him on Algeria’s African Cup of Nations win, with Bensalah thanking the king for his phone call.