Olympic Champions

Today was the men’s giant slalom event at the Olympics and naturally there was a list of the usual suspects expected to stand on the podium at the end of the day. These guys are from countries like the United States, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Italy who have long traditions of competitive skiing and skiers, who on any given day can dominate any event. Names like Franz Klamer, Alberto Tomba, Hermann Maier, Pirmin Zurbriggen and Bode Miller are pretty much household names if you know anything at all about skiing.

Well, this morning on my way to work I was listening to NPR and they played a human interest piece about an alpine skier from Pakistan named Muhammed Abbas.

It seems that from an early age Muhammed had an infatuation with the Winter Olympics. When it would snow, he and his friends would find pieces of scrap wood and tie them to their shoes so that they could “ski”. One day a survival training expert noticed Muhammed and his friends “skiing”, felt a little sorry for them, so scavanged up some real skis for the kids to use. Today, at age 24, Muhammed will compete in the Giant Slalom in Vancouver, British Columbia in the 2010 Winter Olympics. On top of that, he’ll compete as Pakistan’s very first winter Olympian. The guy that found him the skis way back in teh day? He’s now Muhammed’s coach.

Although Pakistan is a country with some of the most rugged mountain ranges in the world, they have no formal ski areas to speak of. That’s certainly not an ideal situation for an aspiring ski racer such as Muhammed. But given his fascination, motivation and love of the sport, he worked around the problem of having no ski area and found a way to do the absolute best he could with what he had. To make his journey to the Olympics even more amazing, when Muhammed steps into the starting house and hears the race official count him down for his start, it will be his very first race of this winter season.

During the day I have a little box reduced at the corner of my computer screen that has live updates from the event. From time to time I’ll look to see who is leading the race or who has crashed. As expected, most of the more familiar names were atop the leader board (save for Bode Miller who crashed early on). Naturally all of these guys are seeded high in the competition and will be the first to go. What this means is that by a third or so of the competitors through the field, most of the people who have any shot at all of winning a medal are probably already back in the warmth of their training facility or conducting interviews with local and national media from their given countries. And what’s left for the rest of the field is a chewed up course with ruts and choppy conditions and basically no chance to even get noticed as having participated.

But guys like Muhammed, or Jamyang Namgial from India, or Marino Cardelli from San Marino will sit and wait as the best in the world put up times they know they have no chance of ever catching. And by the time they finally push out of the start house, the crowds will be mostly gone and the news crews will be packing up for their next assignments. When I thought about this, it actually made me a little sad and ashamed that we sometimes just discount the efforts of people who don’t have a gazillion dollar sponsorship or have a country that can afford to host a program so that they can have half of a fighting chance.

So after thinking about that, I decided that I owed it to them to watch their results as they popped up on my screen and show some support for these athletes who undoubtedly worked just as hard as anyone else in the field — they just didn’t have the resources or money to take it to that world class level. And though they may not have had the money or resources, I know for sure they had a bigger heart than any other athlete out there because they had to come in to the games knowing that their efforts were going to fall well short of the elite skiers times.

To me, these are the true heroes of the Olympic Games. They are not Shaun White who’ll knock down $9 million a year in endorsements or have Red Bull build them a private half pipe and get a helicopter ride up to it every day. They aren’t the elite figure skaters who sometimes have every privilege in the world, train at world class facilities and revel in the knowledge that television stations make them into some of media gods. And with all those privileges and sponsorships, they still cop some heavy attitude and seem unappreciative at times.

Muhammed and everyone else that finishes in an empty stadium are just the guys and girls who work their asses off day after day, maybe between helping their families earn enough to eat, and are satisfied with knowing they gave everything they had to live out a dream of just standing in the starting gate at the Olympic Games.

It’s easy to be a fan of somebody standing on the podium year after year, and yes, they are tremendous athletes and have worked hard to get where they are — with the help of sponsors, world class coaches and media coverage. But I myself find it easier to be a fan of people like Muhammed who ask for nothing, took very little (because there was nothing to give) and still make their own dreams come true.

So after I watched the updates as these guys raced down the course, I’m happy to say that on Muhammed’s first race of the year he finished with a time of 1:38:27, taking a respectiable 87th place. Mr. Cardelli of San Marino finished in 1:40:88 for 88th place and finally, Jamyang Namgial of India crossed the finish line at 1:46:77. They were all three well more than 20 seconds off the winning time in the first leg of a race that took most people only a minute to complete. But they finished, which is what 14 competitors were not able to do.

There are your Olympic champions, though you’ll never know their names beyond this blog post or see their faces on a single advertisement.

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