When you’re the only hope

Nearly a quarter of the nations competing only have one representative

Muhammad Abbas

Photograph by Simon Hayter

As a young boy in the far north of Pakistan, Muhammad Abbas would find pieces of scrap wood at the nearby air force facility and, with a little help, fashion them into rudimentary skis. He attached them to his feet with rubber bands. It was cold, he remembers, and there wasn’t much else to do in winter.

Pastime became hobby, hobby became obsession—and 15 years later, Abbas is in Whistler to ski the giant slalom. No more rubber bands: at 24, he is Pakistan’s flag-bearer, its sole representative and the first athlete in his country’s history to qualify for the Winter Olympics. “This boy,” says Zahid Farooq, a now-retired member of the air force who nurtured Abbas as a young skier and remains his coach today, “This boy, a nine-year-old, on his little skis—he could do anything the adults could do, and more. We said, ‘Here is someone to be groomed. Here is our future.’ ”

When these Games began, Abbas walked into B.C. Place as part of a curious fraternity: almost one quarter of the 82 countries at the Vancouver Games are, like Pakistan, represented by a single athlete. Some of these competitors are using what cynics describe as “flags of convenience”—a back door into the Olympics after one fails to make the cut in his homeland.

In some other cases, the athlete is a transplant of longer standing. Tucker Murphy, a cross-country skier who became the first Bermudian to compete at a Winter Games, was born in the United States and educated at Oxford. Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong—the publicity-loving “snow leopard” who comprises Ghana’s entry—was born in Scotland and didn’t start skiing until he moved to Britain as an adult. Samir Azzimani, skiing for Morocco, grew up outside Paris. “I want to show the world that when it comes to Africans, we don’t all do the snow plow,” he said before the Olympics.

Abbas is skiing for the country of his birth and for the pride of the small, primitive village in which he still lives, deep in Pakistan’s mountainous north. Officially, he is a member of the country’s air force. His job? To ski. The military is now actively encouraging the development of young alpine stars as part of what one official has described as an effort to “soften” Pakistan’s international image. It’s a long-term investment: of the eight skiers that Pakistan sent to Austria for training and races last year, only two returned with enough points to qualify for the Olympics. But because neither skier finished high enough in the world rankings, Pakistan was given just one slot in the giant slalom—and Abbas, who scored highest, was chosen to represent his country.

“People in Pakistan—they are not much attuned to the Winter Olympics,” Abbas said through his coach and interpreter. “But now I am here, and the people—they care. They send me messages. The time has not come for me to stand on the podium, but my country is watching so I must acquit myself with honour.”

Abbas said he was calm as the opening ceremonies began, but that changed the moment he entered the stadium. “To be the first—I was so much bursting with emotion that I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs, ‘Pakistan Zindabad!’ [Long live Pakistan!]”

Even a month ago, few in his own country knew who he was. That’s changed. Abbas has been the toast of official government receptions. And he was greeted at the Vancouver airport by dozens of cheering members of the city’s Pakistani community. “Some in Pakistan—they didn’t know there even was a Winter Olympics,” his coach said. “Now they know. They know about Abbas. And some, they are putting on skis for the first time.”

UPDATE: Muhammad Abbas’s two runs in the giant slalom on Feb. 23 were well off the gold-medal pace, but he achieved his goal of finishing ahead of at least a few skiers. He didn’t feel nervous, he said afterwards. He felt motivated. “When I go home, my goal now will be to encourage others in my country to try this lovely sport. So next time I am not the only one.”