Abbas takes a giant step for Pakistan

Abbas takes a giant step for Pakistan.

WHISTLER: Muhammad Abbas has come a long way from the days when he and his friends would strap rough wooden planks to their legs with nylon rope and go skiing.

On Tuesday, the 24-year-old became the first Pakistani to compete at a Winter Olympics when he started in the giant slalom.

"I am very proud that I am the first athlete from Pakistan to qualify and participate for my nation in the winter Olympics. And I''m happy that I qualified on behalf of Pakistan," said Abbas.

His is a journey that has taken him from a life below the poverty line in a northern mountain village to the bright lights and glamour of Whistler -- by way of Iran, Lebanon and Austria.

Although Abbas was at something of a disadvantage against the mighty Austrians and Swiss, he expressed his excitement and delight to be at the Olympic Games in his native tongue and through his coach and mentor Zahid Farooq.

"I was very emotional at the time I had Pakistan''s flag in my hand, I couldn''t take the emotion anymore. That was how happy I was," Abbas said.

Not only did he start 96th of 103 starters, but the Olympic race was also his first race of the year. . . on three-year-old skis.

He finished 45 seconds behind Swiss winner Carlo Janka in 79th position, but 15 seconds ahead of Indian skier Jamyang Namgial and American Bode Miller, who earned a DNF after crashing out in his first run.

In the last two years, the Pakistan ski team trained only eight weeks - two weeks in Austria in 2008 and six in 2009.

Abbas competed in 10 races last year and is a beneficiary of camps organised by Alpine skiing''s governing body, the International Ski Federation (FIS), to help developing nations. He has also been assisted by the Pakistani Air Force contributing from their welfare fund.

The day Abbas qualified for the Olympics in March of last year was one of the happiest days in the life of the 55-year-old Farooq, especially after the disappointment of not qualifying for Torino in 2006. If none of the ski team had qualified, according to Farooq, the program would have had to wait another ten years, as funding had dried up.

The story began in 1982 when Farooq was posted to Naltar, near the town of Gilgit in the foothills of the Karakoram mountains, as a survival trainer. There the military used a small slope for their training and watched as children would strap home-made wooden skis to their feet and try to speed down the mountain.

Farooq routinely returned to Naltar frequently, and after the creation of the Pakistani Ski Federation in 1990, began organizing ski races on the 500 metres long slope, with a small of only 80 to 100 metres, serviced by only a t-bar.

Abbas said he loved the slopes in Whistler, and wished they could take advantage of the powder at home, and help children in his village access the slopes and maybe the even participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics.

"It''s very different, I feel it, I like it a lot here, we have these slopes but we should definitely get lifts there. In our country we also have big mountains and a lot of snow. But if only we can get lifts like this, we can have slopes like this."

In the 1990s, Abbas was one of the new generation of children in Naltar, that had now grown up using their own home-made skis (without boots) to emulate the soldiers they saw, but Farooq noticed they had begun to work on the more technical aspects of skiing, versus only speed.

Farooq and his team acquired eight pairs of skis and held a trial to select 16 so they could share the skis -- one group in the morning and one in the afternoon. From there, the top performers, including Abbas went to Iran for the junior championships in 1999.

The 2006 Turin Games came too soon for Pakistan and even now, resources are severely stretched. Where others have coaches, managers and ski technicians, Pakistan have Farooq who acts as coach, physical trainer, ski technician, cook, driver and translator.

Farooq had contemplated retiring after the success of ushering Pakistan into the Winter Olympics on the skis of Abbas, but changed his mind after the experience of the Vancouver Games.

"I had started thinking of finally retiring and hanging up my gloves, but once I saw the atmosphere over here and I saw there were so many other opportunities -- we can expand into nordic and into biathlon. And yes, I started having plans and once I go back, probably right, this very season I will put up a team, a nordic team for 2014," explained Farooq who also plans to add a female skier to the team for Sochi.

"Maybe we have a Bode Miller here at the village Naltar just waiting in the wings to come up and ski down like a real champ."

But among the most satisfying points of the experience for Farooq has been the fact that Pakistan has been able to develop their own Olympic team without almost no help from outside.