Saudi skier shrugs off pressure of historic Beijing Winter Olympics

Alpine Skier Fayik Abdi is Saudi Arabia's first ever Winter Olympian. (Supplied)
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Updated 03 February 2022

Saudi skier shrugs off pressure of historic Beijing Winter Olympics

  • Fayik Abdi is the first and only Saudi Winter Olympian and hopes he can inspire others to emulate his mission impossible

LONDON: Fayik Abdi could be forgiven for basking in the glory of becoming a Saudi Arabian national hero.

The giant slalom skier has achieved the unthinkable by qualifying for the Beijing Winter Olympics after only seven months’ training and during a global pandemic.

He is the first and only Saudi to have achieved this gargantuan feat, but the self-deprecating Abdi is eager to avoid the limelight.

“I don’t want this to be about me,” Abdi told Arab News ahead of the Games, which take place on Feb 4-20. “I don’t want the attention, I don’t want the spotlight.

“I want this to be about Saudi. I want this to be about other Saudis and I want to inspire them to find a passion, to do new things and tell them that anything is possible and nothing is impossible.”

Abdi’s tale of the unexpected began when the newly formed Saudi Winter Sports Federation offered him the chance of a lifetime last March.

The SWSF harbored a seemingly fanciful ambition of sending Saudi sports talent to the Winter Olympics and duly helped Abdi to fund top coaches, a training program and his travel to competitions.

The 24-year-old is no skiing rookie, though, having dedicated his life to the sport since taking it up at the age of four.

Alpine Skier Fayik Abdi is Saudi Arabia's first ever Winter Olympian. (Supplied)

As such, he has great confidence in his ability and an innate cool-headedness.

“I’m going to stay relaxed,” he said ahead of his race on Feb. 13. “The only thing I’m nervous about is catching COVID at the Olympics or right before it, but I’m not as nervous (about anything else) as you might imagine.

“That’s kind of my personality.”

So how did a man from a desert nation become so captivated by skiing?

“My mother was a recreational skier and she taught me how to ski in Lebanon. Ever since then, I fell in love with the sport and have been trying to pursue it,” said Abdi, who was born in San Diego, California, to two Saudi parents, but who grew up in the Kingdom between the ages of three and 14.

“When I turned 14, I went to boarding school in Florida and wanted to be a professional football player. But to be honest, I kept getting injured playing football.

“I kind of had to give it up and said to myself: ‘I wanna go somewhere where I can ski.’ I felt like that was my calling.

“I went to the University of Utah in 2016. I studied criminal justice. If you ask ‘why?’, it’s because I wanted to study something relatively easy so I could ski,” he said, laughing.

“While at university, I also worked as a ski technician tuning skis and took online classes and basically skied for 120-plus days every season. I wasn’t racing, I was just free riding. It was the best time of my life because I was doing what I loved.

“When I ski, I don’t worry about anything. I’m only thinking about skiing and being in the present moment.”

After graduating in December 2020, he returned to Saudi and started a project aimed at bringing sand-skiing to the Kingdom.

While doing this, he responded to an advert looking for Saudi skiers to film a photoshoot at NEOM, the new net-zero megacity on the Kingdom’s northwest Red Sea coast.

The SWSF’s CEO, Sultan Salama, had heard of Abdi’s skiing prowess and asked him to meet him and his colleagues in Riyadh.

“They asked me if I wanted to go to the Olympics,” Abdi said. “I didn’t know if they were for real. I was like: ‘Well, the Olympics is in 11 months and I’ve never trained for anything like that.’

“They asked me to look for a training program and a coach and I found someone, Jeff Books, a Canadian guy (and experienced skiing director).”

After starting training in Austria last August, Abdi and his team trained and competed in countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, Montenegro and Italy.

But his arduous regime was made even harder by COVID-19’s disruptive impact.

“It’s been really challenging because we haven’t been able to go to races we wanted to go to because of cancellations, and we haven’t been able to train at venues.

“It’s just a challenge that adds to the journey, and I think it makes (my qualification) even more sweet.”

Books and his fellow coaches had understandably felt Abdi’s Olympic qualification hopes were “extremely difficult to the point of impossible.”

“They’re even surprised about where we’re at right now,” Abdi said. “They’re completely mind-blown, to be completely honest.”

Abdi competed in “about 11 races” in Europe and explains the Olympic qualification criteria thus: “You need to have five results to average below 160 points. So basically add your best five results, divide that by five and that’s your average. 

“The best skier in the world has zero points and our objective was to average below 160 points, and if you do this you have qualified, basically. I have 131 points.”

Explaining his grand slalom discipline, he said: “In alpine skiing, you have four disciplines — slalom, giant slalom or GS, super-G and downhill. Slalom is the slowest one as in speed, GS is second, super-G is third and downhill is the fastest.

“In GS, you have gates that are set around 25-32ish meters apart and you race through the course to the finish twice. Whoever has the best time in the two runs basically wins the race.”

Two of Abdi’s teammates, Rakan Alireza and Salman Al-Houwaish, also secured the points that they needed to qualify for Beijing 2022, but have agonizingly missed out on selection.

Abdi said Alireza, a cross-country skier, needed to have participated in a World Championship to qualify.

Al-Houwaish, meanwhile, was pipped by Abdi on account of his inferior world ranking of 3,722 as opposed to Abdi’s 3,512.

“It’s been really tough for Salman and I for the past two or three weeks,” Abdi said. “When we first started this project, we were told we would both be able to go if we both qualified. Once we both qualified, we found out that only one of us could go and that changed the whole scenario.

“This is life and this is sports and sometimes it’s like cruel like that.

“I feel for him and consider him (to be) like a brother. I know he’s going to do great things in the ski industry and in life.”

Abdi is flying the flag for Saudi alone in Beijing. Undaunted, he insists he is not there to make up the numbers or to revel in the “glamor” of the occasion.

Alpine Skier Fayik Abdi is Saudi Arabia's first ever Winter Olympian. (Supplied)

He cites Wayne Rooney as his greatest inspiration, given the legendary ex-Manchester United and England footballer’s “competitive tenacity,” and hopes to display such a quality in China.

“My goal is just like every race: Just to try and ski the best you can. A race is just skiing and I think that’s what a lot of racers forget sometimes; they try and do something different in a race to what they do in training.

“I want to beat as many nations as I can. I’m going to be competitive.

“This is a long-term journey for me. I’m not just doing this to get to the Olympics. I want the next Olympics and then the next one.”

Whatever happens next in his incredible skiing odyssey, Abdi said that he owes everything to the SWSF.

“They’re legends in my opinion. They really shot for the stars and it’s amazing that they had the trust to send us out there with seven months of training and hope we would qualify for the Olympics. I give them so much credit for trusting us, for supporting us, and really just their ambition is truly remarkable.”

Abdi himself is truly remarkable and it is touching to learn that he wants to leave a lasting legacy when he hangs up his skis.

“Honestly, my biggest dream and accomplishment would be to breed a major male or female skier and have them become World Cup skiers who are constantly on the circuit winning races and putting Saudi Arabia on the map.”

Lawyers appeal US basketball star Brittney Griner’s Russian prison sentence

Updated 15 August 2022

Lawyers appeal US basketball star Brittney Griner’s Russian prison sentence

  • On Sunday, a senior Russian diplomat said exchange talks have been conducted

MOSCOW: Lawyers for American basketball star Brittney Griner on Monday filed an appeal against her nine-year Russian prison sentence for drug possession, Russian news agencies reported Monday.
Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was convicted on Aug. 4. She was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after vape canisters containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage.
Griner played for a women’s basketball team in Yekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason.
Lawyer Maria Blagovolina was quoted by Russian news agencies on Monday as saying the appeal was filed, but the grounds of the appeal weren’t immediately clear.
Blagovolina and co-counsel Alexander Boykov said after the conviction that the sentence was excessive and that in similar cases defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole.
Griner admitted that she had the canisters in her luggage, but said she had inadvertently packed them in haste and that she had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.
Before her conviction, the US State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of revealing publicly in July that the US had made a “substantial proposal” to get Griner home home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage.
Blinken didn’t elaborate, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to free Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US and once earned the nickname the “Merchant of Death.”
On Sunday, a senior Russian diplomat said exchange talks have been conducted.
“This quite sensitive issue of the swap of convicted Russian and US citizens is being discussed through the channels defined by our presidents,” Alexander Darchiev, head of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, told state news agency Tass. “These individuals are, indeed, being discussed. The Russian side has long been seeking the release of Viktor Bout. The details should be left to professionals, proceeding from the ‘do not harm’ principle.’“

Shaheen fitness and World Cup key as Pakistan tackle Netherlands

Updated 15 August 2022

Shaheen fitness and World Cup key as Pakistan tackle Netherlands

  • Pakistani pacer Shaheen Afridi suffered a knee injury during recent Sri Lanka tour
  • Pakistan-Netherlands three-match ODI series kicks off from Tuesday

Rotterdam, NETHERLANDS: Pakistan will look to collect crucial World Cup qualifying points when they tackle the Netherlands in a three-match ODI series from Tuesday but will have a wary eye on the fitness of star bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi.
The 22-year-old paceman suffered a knee injury on the recent tour of Sri Lanka, a worrying setback with the Asia Cup — and a meeting with old rivals India — coming up at the end of the month.
Pakistan team bosses do not want to overload a fast bowler who has already played 97 times across all three formats since his international debut just four years ago.
“We’re taking a couple of doctors with us to take care of Shaheen and want him to play a game against Netherlands to see if he’s fit and ready for the Asia Cup,” said Pakistan skipper Babar Azam.
“But we have 11 trump cards. Each of them can be match winners on their day. I have faith in every one of them, whether batters or bowlers.”
The series in Rotterdam was postponed due to Covid in 2020.
It forms part of the 13-nation Super League from where the top seven teams plus hosts India will qualify for the 2023 World Cup.
Pakistan are currently third with 90 points, having beaten a formidable Australia 2-1 in their last ODI series at home.
Failure to make the top seven would mean having to negotiate a perilous route through a qualifying competition.
“There are important Super League points at stake which we can’t lose,” said Azam who may be stunned to find Europe baking in a heatwave.
“I think the conditions will be similar to England. The weather will be cooler so we have practiced with the air conditioning on indoors, perhaps that helps simulate the conditions,” he said Thursday on the team’s departure for Europe.

The two teams have only played three one-day internationals — all in multi-national events at the 1996 (Pakistan) and 2003 (South Africa) World Cups and 2002 Champions Trophy (Sri Lanka).
Pakistan won all three.
After qualifying for the Twenty20 World Cup to be played in Australia later this year, the Netherlands are seeking a huge lift in their 50-over fortunes.
They are placed last in the Super League, having won only two of their 16 matches with one no-result and 13 defeats.
Those two wins — against Ireland — followed 12 straight losses in series against Afghanistan, New Zealand, West Indies and England.
England also smashed a world record total of 498-4 against them in June.
But new skipper Scott Edwards believes playing against bigger nations has helped his young team.
“ODI cricket is still a benchmark for Associates,” said Edwards, who replaced Pieter Seelaar as skipper in June.
“We have got a lot of young cricketers coming through who have got exposure against England and New Zealand. I am excited for the next two, three years.
“We play Pakistan which is another opportunity to face world-class bowlers and batters and that is a huge preparation for us to fine-tune our skills for the Twenty20 World Cup in Australia.
“It’s been an awesome summer for the players for this opportunity to play these bigger nations. There is a little bit of shame that we haven’t got some wins on the board.”
Pakistan have dropped out of form fast bowler Hasan Ali who is replaced by rookie pacer Naseem Shah while Shahnawaz Dahani, Haris Rauf and Mohammad Wasim Junior are the other quicks in the squad.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, have recalled 38-year-old all-rounder Wesley Barresi after a three-year absence.
After the opening game on Tuesday, the sides meet again on Thursday and Sunday.

Alaba free-kick gives Real Madrid win to start title defense

Updated 15 August 2022

Alaba free-kick gives Real Madrid win to start title defense

  • The winner arrived with 15 minutes remaining at Almeria’s Power Horse Stadium, as Alaba strode onto the pitch and curled a free-kick in off the upright after Luka Modric had been fouled just outside the box

MADRID: David Alaba scored with a stunning free-kick immediately after coming on as a substitute as reigning champions Real Madrid came from behind to beat Almeria 2-1 in their opening game of the season in La Liga on Sunday.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side trailed to an early goal by Largie Ramazani away against their promoted opponents, but Lucas Vazquez equalized just after the hour mark.
The winner arrived with 15 minutes remaining at Almeria’s Power Horse Stadium, as Alaba strode onto the pitch and curled a free-kick in off the upright after Luka Modric had been fouled just outside the box.
Real were made to work hard for the points against an Almeria side who won last season’s second-tier title to return to La Liga after a seven-year absence.
“We had lots of shots on goal but once we got the first goal it made things much easier for us,” said Ancelotti.
“I am happy with the way the game went. We were not spectacular but there were lots of things to take into account, like the game on Wednesday and the heat.”
At one point it looked like Madrid might suffer a defeat in their opening league game of the season for the first time since 2008, with Ancelotti’s decision to rotate his squad not initially paying off.
The Italian had made five changes to the line-up that started in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the UEFA Super Cup in Helsinki, when goals by Alaba and Karim Benzema gave the defending European champions the first silverware of the campaign.
Alaba and Modric were among the players dropped to the bench, while close-season signings Antonio Rudiger and Aurelien Tchouameni were handed first competitive starts for their new club.
Yet the game was just six minutes old when former Chelsea defender Rudiger was caught out by a ball over the top and Ramazani ran through to beat Thibaut Courtois.
Ramazani, the 21-year-old Belgian winger who used to be on the books at Manchester United, ran off to celebrate in acrobatic fashion as Saudi-owned Almeria enjoyed a dream start to their top-flight comeback.
Yet the hosts needed some inspired goalkeeping from Fernando Martinez to keep them ahead into half-time, with the standout save coming low to his left to deny Rudiger five minutes before the break.
Vazquez then had the ball in the net in the 43rd minute only to be denied by a very tight offside call, but the full-back was the man who dragged the away side back level in the 61st minute as he pounced on a loose ball in the area to score.
Almeria, who had already seen a hanging Vinicius cross strike the frame of their goal on its way behind before that, soon conceded again.
When Modric was fouled just outside the box by Rodrigo Ely, Austrian defender Alaba was waiting on the sideline for the chance to come on.
The break in play allowed him to replace Ferland Mendy, and he came straight on to take the free-kick and score in stunning fashion to complete the latest comeback from Ancelotti’s team.
Earlier, Japan star Takefusa Kubo marked his Real Sociedad debut by scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win at Cadiz.
Kubo, 21, moved to San Sebastian last month on a five-year deal from Real Madrid, after never managing to break into the first team at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Signed by Madrid from FC Tokyo as an 18-year-old in 2019, he was farmed out on loan to Mallorca, Villarreal and then Getafe, before returning to Mallorca last season.
Carlos Soler’s penalty gave Valencia a 1-0 win over promoted Girona in their first La Liga outing under new coach Gennaro Gattuso.
Valencia held on after having Swiss defender Eray Comert send off early in the second half.
Barcelona were held to a 0-0 draw by Rayo Vallecano in their opening game at the Camp Nou on Saturday.
Atletico Madrid begin their campaign away at Getafe in one of three matches to be played on Monday.

Halep holds off Haddad Maia to win third WTA Canadian crown

Updated 15 August 2022

Halep holds off Haddad Maia to win third WTA Canadian crown

  • The former world number one from Romania added the trophy in Toronto to those she captured in Montreal in 2016 and 2018

TORONTO, Canada: Simona Halep kept control against unpredictable Beatriz Haddad Maia on Sunday, beating the Brazilian 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 to win a third WTA Masters 1000 title in Canada.
The former world number one from Romania added the trophy in Toronto to those she captured in Montreal in 2016 and 2018.
She needed two and a quarter hours to deny the South American lefthander the upset victory.
“Here there are many Romanians and they always come to support me. I’m really happy that I could win also here,” said Halep, who was backed by chants of “Si-mo-na!” from her vocal fans throughout the match.
She shrugged of nine double-faults and broke Haddad Maia five times from 10 chances as she became the third player with at least nine WTA 1000 titles, after Serena Williams (13) and Victoria Azarenka (10).
Halep, who was playing in her ninth final at the elite level as Haddad Maia tackled her first, won her 38th match of the season and claimed her biggest success since the Rome trophy in May, 2020.
After a year outside of the world’s top-10 she is projected to rise to sixth this week with the start of the US Open approaching on August 29.
“I was there for many years but now I feel like it’s a big deal to be back in top 10,” she said. “I’m really happy with this performance.
“When I started the year I was not very confident and I set the goal to be top-10 at the end of the year — and here I am.
“It’s a very special moment. I will enjoy it. I will give myself credit. I’m just dreaming for more.”
Haddad Maia, enjoying a breakout season that included grasscourt titles at Birmingham and Nottingham in June, had toppled world number one Iga Swiatek on her way to the final.
She struck first with a break on the way to a quick 3-0 lead. But Halep, a two-time Grand Slam champion, quickly responded, winning the opening set as she spun off six straight games to claim the opener 6-3, in 50 minutes.
Haddad Maia answered in the opening game of the second set with a break, consolidating through a double break for 4-0 before Halep stopped the rot to hold for 1-4.
The Brazilian delivered a huge serve on set point three games later to square the contest at a set each.
But Halep came out ahead after they traded three breaks of serve in the final set, wrapping it up on her second match point as Haddad Maia fired a service return into the net.
Haddad Maia said she was at times overwhelmed by the occasion.
“It was an emotional beginning, even when I was 3-Love up I couldn’t hold the emotions. I couldn’t control myself,” she said.
“Simona started to play better, to improve. I was trying to be more aggressive.
“Today Simona deserved it, she played better than me,” added Haddad Maia, the first Brazilian to reach the final of a WTA 1000 event. “She was more brave.
“Sometimes we learn — today, it’s a day to learn.”

Chelsea 2 Tottenham 2: ‘Fair tackle’ as Tuchel insists no hard feelings after Conte clash

Updated 14 August 2022

Chelsea 2 Tottenham 2: ‘Fair tackle’ as Tuchel insists no hard feelings after Conte clash

  • Conte’s overexuberant celebrations of Spurs’ first equalizer resulted in the two coaches being booked for squaring up
  • Tuchel was not happy at the Italian for not making eye contact during a handshake at full-time

LONDON: Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said he was happy to take a “fair tackle” from Tottenham boss Antonio Conte after both were shown red cards for clashing twice during a heated 2-2 on Sunday.
Conte’s overexuberant celebrations of Spurs’ first equalizer resulted in the two coaches being booked for squaring up.
Tuchel then responded by running down the touchline in celebration when Chelsea retook the lead through Reece James 13 minutes from time.
But Harry Kane’s 96th minute equalizer meant Conte had the last laugh.
Tuchel was not happy at the Italian for not making eye contact during a handshake at full-time, which sparked another melee between both sets of coaches and players.
“It was hot from the temperature and hot between the benches and hot on the field and hot between the spectators,” said Tuchel with temperatures soaring above 30 degrees Celsius in the English capital.
“There’s no hard feelings. I feel like it was a fair tackle from him and a fair tackle from me.
“We did not insult each other, we did not hit each other, we were fighting for our teams and from my side there’s absolutely no hard feelings. I’m surprised that we both got a red card for that.”
Tuchel’s ire was instead directed toward the officials as both Tottenham’s goals could have been disallowed.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s strike was allowed to stand despite a potential foul on Kai Havertz in the build-up and Richarlison standing in an offside position when the Dane’s shot was hit.
Before the corner leading to Kane’s equalizer, Spurs defender Sergio Romero also escaped a red card for dragging Marc Cucurella to the ground by his hair.
“It was a clear foul on Kai Havertz. Ok, the situation goes on and on and on, then it is a clear offside,” added Tuchel.
“Since when can you pull hair on the football field? It’s ridiculous.
“That’s the only frustration. I’m the happiest coach on earth because we played a fantastic match.”
Conte batted away several questions about his tete-a-tete with Tuchel, but admitted a gap between the sides remains despite Spurs’ improvement.
Chelsea won all four meetings between the sides last season, three of them after Conte took charge in November.
“In my opinion it is better to talk about the game,” said Conte. “Chelsea showed to be a really good team, but compared to last season we did a bit better.
“The difference is clear. This team won the Champions League two years ago, last year won the Club World Cup, got to the final of the FA Cup and Carabao (League) Cup.
“There is a difference between Chelsea and Tottenham but we are here to reduce this gap. Last season we lost three times, this time we drew so it’s a little step forward.”