RIYADH: In a huge milestone for Saudi Arabia the country’s flag will be raised high on Friday at the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, the only Gulf nation to compete at the winter games.
“We are very happy and proud to be able to participate. We are the only GCC country that has ever qualified for the Winter Olympics,” said Rabab Mahassen, vice president of the Saudi Winter Sport Federation, which was launched in 2021 with the backing of the Ministry of Sports. “Saudi Arabia’s flag will be marching at the opening of the Beijing Olympics tomorrow, and that in itself is a huge win for the Kingdom.
“We selected the most promising and skilled athletes and then created the perfect program for them,” Mahassen told Arab News.
Last October, Fayik Abdi managed to score the most points during the Federation Internationale Switzerland qualifiers in Geneva and was selected by the SWSF as the athlete to advance to the games.
Abdi will be the only Saudi Winter Olympian to go and will be competing in the alpine skiing Giant Slalom category. The Saudi skier arrived in the Chinese capital on Thursday in preparation for his historic participation on Feb. 13.
Two other Saudis — skiers Salman Al-Howaish and Rakan Alireza — earned enough qualifying points to be eligible to compete in Beijing but Saudi Arabia was only allocated one place at the games.
In May 2021, the SWSF launched a nationwide campaign seeking serious Saudi skiers and snowboarders who could represent their nation at the games and were deluged with responses, according to Mahassen.
Impressed with the level of proficiency Saudis possessed in different alpine disciplines, the federation narrowed their search by focusing on those who had already been training with a club or coach and possessed athletic ability, talent, speed, power and a desire to push their boundaries.
Mahassen, herself a lifelong skier, worked closely with Ahmad Al-Tabbaa, the SWSF president, on strategy, development and communication to develop the program for the Saudi athletes.
“We created a special training program for our athletes in Europe with the help of an international company called International Racers, and our advisory board,” she said. “We are very proud of our athletes, and this is only the beginning, we plan to reach 20 to 30 athletes racing in world circuits by 2026.”
One of the main challenges the federation faced was providing natural or man-landscaped terrain. As a non-traditional winter sport nation, the SWSF sent its athletes to Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France for training camps to reach peak condition for the Olympics.
“We followed the snow,” Mahassen said.
The SWSF has 17 sports under its umbrella. For this year, Mahassen told Arab News, focusing on snow sports such as skiing made more sense for the programs they could organize quickly.
The federation also established a scholarship program for winter athletes to train in France to develop their skills in their respective sports.
According to the vice president, the federation plans to launch more programs in the future that will encourage young Saudi athletes who wish to reach new heights in their sport, while a PIF-backed company called Seven plans to open large indoor ski resorts in Jeddah, Dammam and Riyadh.