Lebanon's skiers fight for spot in Sochi Olympics

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When three-time Olympian Chirine Njeim hits the slopes in the United States or Europe, somebody inevitably asks the questions.

You're from Lebanon? Where do you ski there, in the desert?

“I feel like the bobsled team from Jamaica,” said Njeim, referring to the guys who inspired the movie “Cooling Runnings” at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. “I tell them we have the sea and the beaches, mountains and snow and four seasons, and it makes me feel good, because not only do I compete for my country, I also get to show it off.”

Skiing isn't on the list of things that usually come to mind when one tries to imagine life in Lebanon, a small Arab country on the Mediterranean. The long civil war tends to dominate the western perception of the place, not skiers racing down the Faraya-Mzaar mountains, just an hour away from the capital.

These days, violence has ebbed and the only real links to the desert are Arab tourists from countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia hitting the slopes of the country's six ski resorts, with a season that generally runs from December through April.

Unlike the Summer Olympics that have witnessed increased participation of athletes from Middle Eastern countries over the past decade, Lebanon is the only Arab country capable of fielding athletes in Winter Games.

“It's a great feeling and we are really proud even though we know we have no chance of winning medals,” said Charbel Salameh, the president of Lebanon's ski federation. He hopes to send at least three skiers to Sochi next year.

Njeim hopes to be among them, qualifying for her fourth Olympics.

The 28-year-old skier made history in Salt Lake City in 2002, becoming the first Lebanese athlete to participate in the Winter Olympics, where she carried her country's flag in the opening ceremony in a contingent that otherwise contained only officials from Lebanon's Olympic Committee.

“I was like a deer in the headlights and I remember every second of it even though my results were nowhere near the top,” said Njeim, who has lived and trained in the United States over the past decade. She graduated from the Rowmark Ski Academy and earned a scholarship and bachelor's degree at the University of Utah. She has now settled in Chicago, with the support of her parents while she looks for a job.

While she never finished an Olympic race among the top 30, she has won honors at some lower-level events and a smaller FIS race, and once even shared a podium with Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn. Her biggest achievement up to this point is a bronze at the 2005 South American Cup in Chile.

It was just a few years after the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990 that Njeim started to race competitively. With the national ski federation in a shambles, the national Olympic committee plagued by corruption and most of the skiing infrastructure destroyed by fighting, she left home at the age of 16 and settled in Utah, going to school in the morning and to the mountains for training in the afternoon.

Over the years, Njeim has become her own coach and her own fitness consultant. She prepares her own skis and course reports before races. Her support network comprises her father, a merchant in chemical products and her only sponsor - spending an average $75,000 a year for equipment, travel, racing fees and lodging - and her mother, her biggest fan and often a sports psychologist. Living so far away, they mostly have to encourage their youngest of four children over the phone.

Despite overwhelming support for their daughter, Njeim's parents, Najah and Raymond, rarely see her race although they have cheered her on at two Olympics - in Vancouver and in Salt Lake City.

“It's hard, especially at important races, like the Olympics,” Njeim said. “I am always on my own, when I travel, when I train, before the race and after the race. I am a one-girl team.”

Njeim remains the skier to beat in Lebanon, although the competition is getting tougher as more young skiers aim for Olympic selection.

Earlier this month, she successfully defended the titles in slalom and giant slalom at the national championships, which were staged in The Cedars, Lebanon's highest ski resort at an altitude above 6,600 feet. Jacky Chamoun, Njeim's fellow Olympian in Vancouver, clocked the second- and third-fastest times in the two races.

Chamoun also raced at the world championships in Schladming last month, finishing 88th in slalom and 84th in giant slalom.

“We are trying to do our best to reach qualification and try to be the one representing Lebanon at the Sochi Olympics,” Chamoun said after a recent FIS race in Faraya, the best equipped ski area in Lebanon, with 53 miles of trails northeast of Beirut.

Chamoun, 21, has been training in Faraya since she was a child and says its short slopes, softer snow and higher temperatures do not adequately prepare Lebanese skirts for races in Europe, the U.S. and other parts of Asia.

“When we go outside Lebanon, it's very hard for us to ski on long, long slopes,” Chamoun said. “They are really steep and icy and we are not use to these conditions.”

With an annual budget of $200,000, the federation cannot afford to send skiers to training camps in Europe.

“We don't have enough money for our best skier to train year round, on the slopes and off the slopes,” Salameh said. There are about 20 Lebanese skiers competing internationally in four disciplines.

While “they train only two, three months a year, there will be no champions,” Salameh said.

Sports need prioritization

It's not just skiing that lacks funding and facilities. Sports generally haven't been a major priority as Lebanon focused on recovering from the devastation caused by 15 years of civil war.

“People did not talk to each other, much less competed against one another after the war,” Lebanon sports minister Faisal Karami said. “It's getting better and we are trying to improve in all sports.”

He knows it will likely take a generation before the country will produce champions and even then, they're not likely to winning medals in skiing.

“We hope they will come in sports that are more natural to Lebanon, like swimming, shooting, fencing and wrestling,” Karami said.

Njeim doesn't have a close relationship with the national federation and says it makes competition tough, “Racing for Lebanon, and Lebanon acting like I don't exist.”

With changes in sports leadership, and Sochi most likely her last Olympics, she wants to race there with ease, leaving the burdens of the past behind and celebrate crossing the finishing line as if she'd won a medal.

“It's been such a struggle to be an athlete at previous Olympics and races, but to Sochi I don't want to go with any baggage,” Njeim said. “I will just go there, give it all and race in all events for myself, my family and my country.”

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