Arabs in the Winter Olympics

Lebanon is fielding a team of three.

When Olympic skier Chirine Njeim tells people she’s from Lebanon, they often laugh in disbelief.

Now at the Vancouver Winter Games, and competing alongside two other athletes from her home country, Njeim still has to convince people she’s telling the truth.

“A coach from another country asked me in the elevator the other day where I was from. I said, ‘Lebanon’ and he just started laughing,” said Njeim, who is competing in the Ladies Giant Slalom Wednesday.

Little did that coach know, there has long been downhill skiing in Lebanon — and world-class ski resorts to boot.

“Skiing in Lebanon is very popular,” explained Ezzad Kraytem, Secretary General of Lebanon’s Olympic Committee. “The slopes are only 20 minutes away from the coast, so you can go to the beach and ski in the same day.”

That means there’s a clear view of the Mediterranean Sea from the slopes of Mount Lebanon on most days, according to Kraytem.

Lebanon currently boasts six resorts: The Cedars at Mount Makmel is the largest, while Farya Mzaar is the favored destination of the jet-set (it’s also where Njeim got her start aged three).

“The quality of the snow is one of the main reasons professional skiers love our slopes. Powdery on the surface and hard underneath,” explained Joanne Zarife, a manager at the five-star Intercontinental hotel at Mzaar.
Even though the slopes face north, preserving the snow, the region’s sunshine makes the air mild, even warm, she said.

And today it’s not just downhill skiing that draws the crowds. From just ten snowboarders in 1991, today anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of visitors are riders, according to Ski Lebanon. Lebanon’s high, sunny plateaus also make it ideal for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, they say.

Hey wait a minute, was that article about the Lebanese Olympics team or about tourism in Lebanon? I’ve been had.

Achi Ghassan and Jacky Chamoun are the other two Lebanese olympians in Vancouver.

Samir Azzimani is an alpine skier from Morocco. He’s even helping underprivileged youths learn to ski.

The only athlete representing Morocco in Canada, the France-born Alpine skier is coming with eight secondary school children from Woippy, a depressed suburb of eastern French town Metz that made headlines for riots last month.

Azzimani, who grew up in a rough area of Colombes, outside Paris, simply wanted to share his dream with youngsters from a similar background.

“I’m organising everything myself,” the 32-year-old told Reuters in a telephone interview before flying to Canada for the Games starting on Saturday.

“The idea is to allow them to see the Games from the inside,” he added. “Finding the money and getting all the authorisations was hard but the toughest part was to convince the school.”

“There will be a guy from Ghana and also one from Senegal,” he said. “If I beat them, I’ll be the champion of Africa.”

Khelifi Meidhi-Selim is representing Algeria.

Those are all the athletes I found from Arab countries, but there are probably more representing other countries. And though she’s not an Arab, I want to mention Iranian skier Marjan Kalhor.

WHISTLER — From a few yards away near the slalom finish line, Marjan Kalhor looks like just another Olympic skier. She has the powerful quadriceps and hamstrings, the strong shoulders, the skin-tight uniform.

Get closer and you’ll see what makes her different, how she made history at the Vancouver Olympics this week. Inside her helmet is a purple veil, a mandatory head garment for Islamic women in Iran. On her license-plate sized ID badge is a mug shot of her in a burka covering everything but her face.

Kalhor, 21, is the first woman from Iran to compete in the Winter Olympics. She finished last in the slalom Friday, as you’d expect from someone who once trained by skiing down grass fields. She also finished last in the giant slalom Thursday.

“The only thing I want to get from the Olympics is to compete against the best skiers in the world and get more experience,” she said in passable English.

Iranian women have competed in the Olympics before, just not the Winter Games. Lita Fariman competed in shooting in the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Since then, Iranian women have competed in rowing, archery and taekwondo.

And there’s my excuse to post this old picture I love, of Iranian athlete Nassim Hassanpour, who had to give up gymnastics and take up shooting in order to be allowed to participate.

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