JEDDAH: Mention the Winter Olympics, and chances are you imagine participants from nation’s with snow-peaked mountains and cold weather.
What you don’t expect are athletes from a country known for its high temperatures, such as Saudi Arabia.
It’s time to adjust expectations. Saudi Fayik Abdi, 24, has qualified to compete in Alpine skiing — Giant Slalom category — at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics to take place from Feb. 4-20.
The skier’s qualification created history as he became the first athlete from Saudi Arabia, and the GCC, to make the Winter Olympics.
On Jan.19, the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee tweeted: “Fayik Abdi to participate in Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, selected by the technical management of the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee as the first Saudi and Gulf player to participate in the Winter Olympics.”
Chen Weiqing, ambassador of China to Saudi Arabia and representative of China to the IOC, followed up with his own tweet: “Champions among us.”
Two Saudi skiers had qualified to the games, Abdi and Salman Al-Howaish, but as the rules allowed only one to participate, the former got the nod.
The Saudi Arabian Winter Sports Federation told Arab News: “Two players achieved points that helped them to be both qualified for the Olympics, but due to the regulations of the Winter Games, there is only one seat for the eligible alpine skiers from the Kingdom.”
“A technical comparison was conducted in cooperation with the Saudi Olympic Committee, and Abdi was selected to officially participate in the alpine skiing competition in the giant slalom category,” they said. “As a result of obtaining the highest evaluation in the comparison and as an appreciation of the historical achievement, the two athletes will equally receive a financial reward for qualifying for the Olympics.”
Abdi, in an exclusive interview with Arab News, spoke about his journey as a Saudi skier and how honored and proud he is to represent his country in Beijing.
“I was so happy when once I received the federation’s email in the first week of January, saying that the athlete with highest world ranking on the Olympic list will be chosen to go to the Olympics, but actually it did not change much because I knew I was the one chosen,” he said. “I think I need to try to keep my head down and focus on what I need to keep doing which is training, staying grounded and humble.”
To compete with your teammate for a historic spot at the Olympics needs some sort of understanding.
“We mentioned early on, between him and I, that we need to have healthy competition, and we need to push one another to be better every day and if we do that, we will be able to qualify, so I would say it was a collective effort,” Abdi said.
“To be honest I need to give a lot of credit to my teammate Salman Al-Howaish because he worked hard and his skiing motivated me to also work hard and ski well.”
Abdi explained that the best skier in the world has 0 points so the closer the result to 0 the better.
“There is a slight difference between my score and Al-Howaish score. Mine was 131 FIS points and he had 151 FIS points.”
FIS is the international governing body that sets international competition rules for a range of snow sports. He added: “Al-Howaish and I are really good friends and I was so happy that we were able to cross paths as we come from a place where not so many people ski.”
Throughout his skiing journey, Abdi has skied in many countries including France, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Montenegro and Italy. In the Olympics, he will be competing with Alpine skiers from around the globe such as Brazil, the Philippines, Ghana, Beijing, India, Haiti, Austria, and Norway.
“I started skiing at the age of four in Faraya, Lebanon, the country’s largest and most popular ski destination; not continuously as it was quite challenging to do that while living in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “My mom taught me how to ski; it is the sport I fell in love with right away ever since I have been going in skiing trips,” he said.
Abdi has mainly been practicing skiing in Utah for the past five years after moving to the US in 2016.
“I also skied many times on ski trips to Switzerland,” he said.
In 2019, Abdi received a certification called “Outdoor Emergency Care,” catered around dealing with emergencies in the mountains during snowy weather.
“I did it in Snowbird, Utah in order to be prepared in case of emergency,” he said.
Alpine skiing is a skiing technique known best in central Europe, and practiced in the mountainous terrain of the Alps, having evolved during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“I choose Alpine skiing because I like skiing fast,” Abdi said. “It is an extremely technical sport; when people watch it they do not realize how technical it is.”
The 2022 winter season in the southern region of Saudi Arabia has witnessed snowy weather, specifically in Tabuk’s Al-Lawz mountain.
Abdi said that he practiced skiing in the Kingdom once in NEOM last year while filming a shoot.
“It was a great experience, I didn’t even know that we have mountains this high in Saudi, and I am really excited for what NEOM is doing regarding growing the skiing industry in Saudi and making it a sport that we can actually participate in.”
Saudi Arabia may be a desert country with a first-time qualifier to the Winter Olympics, but it has provided the best support an athlete could hope for.
“I would like to thank the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Winter Sports Federation, and the Olympic Committee for all the support, funding, and trust they put throughout this journey,” Abdi said.
“The support we have received from the Kingdom and Saudi Winter Sports Federations is incredible, we have received what the best teams in the world won’t get half of. It is really impressive how much my country has put into this.”