x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Not competing in Sochi is no laughing matter

Financial backing by itself is not enough while desire and aptitude are just as important for the UAE to be represented at the Winter Olympics.

India luger Shiva Keshavan will be competing in his fifth Winter Olympics this month and is a prime example of how athletes from warm-climate countries can bridge the gap to the Winter Games. Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
India luger Shiva Keshavan will be competing in his fifth Winter Olympics this month and is a prime example of how athletes from warm-climate countries can bridge the gap to the Winter Games. Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

When the 2014 Winter Olympics kick off in Sochi tomorrow, they will, not surprisingly, hold little interest for most Arab audiences.

For obvious reasons: we just don’t do winter sports.

The few Arab countries that get any snow, have no money and resources; and the ones with money and resources, no snow. No nation on the Arabian Peninsula has competed in a Winter Olympics.

The day the UAE, a country flush with resources, is represented at the Winter Olympics remains some way off. Financial backing by itself is not enough; desire and aptitude are just as important.

No athlete from these shores can ever realistically challenge the Austrians at downhill skiing, the Norwegians at cross-country events or the Canadians at ice hockey.

But, give a man a sled, and he may, just may, teach himself to luge.

Ah, yes, the luge, a sled upon which an athlete reclines, while speeding downhill at more than 140kmph, feet first, with no brakes. Perhaps the most ridiculed of all winter sports. (Unless it is its close kin, the skeleton, in which competitors slide face first on similar sleds.)

“The luge is the only Olympic event where you could have people competing in it against their will, and it would look exactly the same,” the American comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said. “Take people off the street, ‘Hey, hey, hey, what is this? I don’t wanna be in the luge!’ Once you put that helmet on them, ‘You’re in the luge, buddy’.”

If only it were that easy. It is true that, unlike in skiing or skating, there are no grade-school luge prodigies knocking about.

Which is not to say it does not take as much dedication to succeed in it. Crucially, as a niche sport, it provides an avenue into the world of winter sports even for those who have never seen snow, or real snow, in their life.

Coming from the most sun-kissed of locations need not be an obstacle.

In Sochi, the 18-year-old Australian Alex Ferlazzo, who hails from the tropical city of Townsville, in Northern Queensland, will be zipping about in Sochi on his luge only three years after taking up the sport.

Encouraged by his mother, who had met Australia’s luge recruitment manager Karen Flynn at a pilates class, Ferlazzo started practicing on a hill using a sled strapped to four wheels instead of the usual steel runners.

At age 15, when many a budding skiing career has already come to a halt, he was just starting his luge adventure.

“It’s a long way from North Queensland to Russia, that’s for sure. It’s very exciting,” Ferlazzo said. “I went over to Lake Placid in America to give it a go and really enjoyed it and I was fairly good at it. That was three years ago now, it’s been a good trip so far.”

Most famous of all winter adventures by torrid-zone athletes is the case of the Jamaican bobsleigh team who competed at the 1988 Winter Olympics, an experience upon which the 1993 film Cool Runnings was loosely based.

Their legacy, and that of the immensely popular film, lives on. The event may have inspired the film, but, in a case of life imitating art, the film continues to inspire the team. The Jamaican team that qualified for Sochi now call themselves “Cool Runnings, The Second Generation”.

Where there is a will, there is a way. Where there is a will, and resources, there is a way to be successful.

The UAE certainly has the financial muscle to put a man on the luge, or a skeleton sled. It is true that only Ski Dubai and several ice rinks cater to any sort of winter sports, but that would hardly represent an insurmountable logistical obstacle. If Ferlazzo can go from wheels to sled why not Emiratis? Some of the most successful UAE sportsmen have excelled on wheels, and the luge could well prove attractive to other speed enthusiasts.

Far more importantly, few countries have in recent years backed their athletes by sending them on overseas training camps the way the UAE has. The young footballers who took part in the recent 2013 Fifa Under 17 World Cup spent over a year on the road, and many of the Emirati female athletes currently taking part in the second Arab Women Sports Tournament, in Sharjah, have enjoyed training camps in places such as Italy.

Neither the expense of luge or skeleton training camps in Europe nor the cost of high-tech sleds, would be a stretch for a UAE Olympic Committee determined to get a national into a Winter Olympics.

An Emirati marching in Opening Ceremonies at the 2022 Winter Olympics? And winning a gold medal in the luge? You may laugh. But if you had said 20 years ago that one day you could go skiing in Dubai in the middle of the summer, people would have laughed, too.

The search will not be easy. After all, you have got to want to be a luge champion. Regardless of what Jerry Seinfeld says.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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