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

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.”

Fernandinho is last line of defense as City face Watford test

Updated 20 September 2019

Fernandinho is last line of defense as City face Watford test

  • Pep Guardiola’s side are 5 points behind Jurgen Klopp’s rampant Liverpool

MANCHESTER: Fernandinho stepped seamlessly into Manchester City’s backline in midweek to ease Pep Guardiola’s defensive woes but the Premier League champions know their stretched resources will be tested by a physical Watford side on Saturday.

The clubs last met in the FA Cup final in May, with City romping to a 6-0 victory to complete the first-ever domestic treble in English football history.

But just four months later Guardiola, whose side are already five points behind Jurgen Klopp’s rampant Liverpool, is facing a serious headache at the back, with Aymeric Laporte and John Stones out for significant spells.

Frenchman Laporte, described as the best left-sided defender in Europe by Guardiola, is out until at least February after injuring knee ligaments in the recent win over Brighton.

That left Stones, whose start to the season was hampered by injury, as the only specialist center-half left to partner Nicolas Otamendi, a player who has not been an automatic first choice for some time.

England defender Stones, however, suffered a muscle injury in training and reports suggest he could be out for four to five weeks.

City appear to be paying the price for a curious strategy in the transfer market.

Over the past two years, they have shown strong interest in Virgil van Dijk and Harry Maguire, only to balk at paying what turned out to be world record transfer fees for defenders.

Van Dijk went to Liverpool for £75 million ($93m) while Maguire ended up at Manchester United for £80m.

Given the vast wealth of the City’s Abu Dhabi ownership, and the fact they have broken their own club transfer record in each of the past two summers, such caution when it comes to signing center-halves seems curious.

Guardiola also famously spent big on three fullbacks — Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy — in a matter of days in 2017 which makes his, and City’s, refusal to compete with Liverpool and United for center-halves all the more baffling.

The upshot of their approach was that they failed to replace veteran club skipper Vincent Kompany, who returned to Belgium.

City’s refusal to go toe to toe with their rivals means they face Watford, and new manager Quique Sanchez Flores, with only Otamendi as a fit, specialist central defender.

Watford are bottom of the league but come into the match buoyant after recovering from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 against Arsenal.

At least Guardiola has a ready-made solution, with defensive midfielder Fernandinho playing at center-back for the midweek visit to Shakhtar Donetsk, where City won 3-0.

The City manager has long spoken of moving Fernandinho back into that position as his career draws to a close although his hand has been forced by the injuries.

“That’s why he is so important for us,” said Guardiola after the victory in his side’s Champions League opener.

“We don’t have many choices. I think he is the only one I have. Other players can play in that position but Fernandinho is a clever player and so intelligent — an incredible guy.

“He did well the first game he played. Of course he has a lot of experience and personality, and what he says the people follow him in the locker room so it’s important.”

Right-back Walker is another player who could move into the center of defense in an emergency but, with Fernandinho in the veteran stage of his career now at 34, Guardiola is one injury away from a full-blown crisis.