Wednesday, February 10, 2010

No snow but Ethiopia’s ski hope is on a roll.


By Barry Malone

ADDIS ABABA, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Ethiopia’s only Olympic skier wheels down a suburban Addis Ababa street on his roller skis, expertly weaving around six donkeys and drawing stares from locals more used to watching runners train.

Robel Teklemariam went to the Turin Winter Olympics four years ago and came 84th out of about 100 cross-country skiers. Now the man whose dreadlocks and bright outfits drew stares in Italy has qualified for the Winter Games again.

“If I’m closer to the winner than I was at the last Olympics then I’ll be very happy,” Robel said, sweating in the blazing sun after the workout.

Ethiopia's Robel Teklemariam competes during the 2007 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships.

“But my real goal now is to get Ethiopians involved in skiing. I don’t want to be the first and the last.”

Robel has set up a website looking for Ethiopians who may be skiing abroad and are interested in representing their country in competition to contact him.

“For me the greatest thing in the world would be that I don’t qualify for the next Olympics because there’s another Ethiopian who’s faster than me,” he said.

When he was eight, Robel’s mother, who worked for the United Nations, was transferred to New York and the Ethiopian boy without a word of English found himself in boarding school in upstate New York, surrounded by snow.

“I had a major culture shock,” he said. “But skiing was a very big part of the life and culture at the school. So you had no choice. You were on snow.”

The child from a country famous for producing world-beating runners like Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele soon found he had talent on the snow.

One day somebody at school joked he should represent Ethiopia at the Olympics.

“That’s when it started getting in my head,” said Robel. “But when I really took it seriously to the point I knew I had to do it and there was no choice was when I saw the Kenyans ski in the Nagano Olympics in Japan.”

Robel then approached the Ethiopian Olympic committee who pointed out that there was no Ethiopian ski team. So the fledgling Olympian created an Ethiopian ski association from scratch, drawing up byelaws and finding sponsorship.

His family members now part-time staff the organisation.

The 35-year-old moved back to Ethiopia four years ago and, although he works as a ski instructor around the world, he knew he had to find a place to train at home.

“I found this street that had just the right elevation and not too much traffic,” said Robel, gesturing to the suburban road that he roller skis up and down six days a week.

“Roller skiing this close to the Olympics is not the ideal thing. Obviously it’s much better to be on snow. The one good thing is that in Ethiopia we’re at 2700 metres so that helps to give you better endurance.”

With his long dreadlocks, ultra high-tech gear and white wrap-around shades, Robel attracts plenty of stares.

“I was here training a little over a week ago and a security guard from one of the houses came out and said ‘Isn’t it better to do that on snow?’” he laughed.

Robel puts back on his sunglasses and, using his ski poles, pushes off and glides down the sun-drenched hill again, dodging three cars on his way down.

Two men stop him and ask what he’s doing. Robel says that he’s training for the winter Olympics in Vancouver. “Oh, are you on the Ethiopian ski team?” one asks.

“You’re looking at the Ethiopian ski team,” replies Robel. (Editing by George Obulutsa and Jon Bramley)

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