Beijing Winter Olympics: Saudi skier Fayik Abdi swaps sand for snow

The 24-year-old hopes his participation in the games will help to raise interest in skiing in his homeland

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Saudi Arabia's first qualifier for the Alpine skiing Giant Slalom event at the Winter Olympics has said he is "super proud and excited" to represent the kingdom.

Fayik Abdi is the only Saudi athlete to qualify for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics which start on Friday, a prospect beyond his wildest dreams until a year ago.

The 24-year-old said he developed his love for skiing at a young age, when his mother took him to the slopes in Lebanon.

With the flame of passion for speeding on crisp, white snow slowly growing, Abdi searched for venues to practise – but Saudi Arabia's searing hot desert didn't exactly offer the training he needed at the time.

“As I got older I started travelling to Switzerland to a winter camp," he told The National. "I loved the sport from a young age, I just didn’t have the accessibility to the sport living in Saudi Arabia until I moved to Utah in 2016, where skiing really picked up.”

Fayik Abdi, left, the first Saudi skier to qualify for the Giant Slalom event at the Winter Olympics, is competing in Beijing this month. Supplied

He said what he loves most about skiing is the freedom one has on the slopes.

“The moment you get off that chair lift, you are free to go wherever you want, how you want to go about it," he said. "I love the outdoors, being one with nature and there’s nothing in this world that makes me feel like I do when I am skiing.”

In 2020, Abdi graduated from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the US, and returned to his home country “hoping to make a connection between skiing and Saudi Arabia”.

It was in 2021 that Abdi made the connection that would change his life.

“I found a German guy, Henrik May, a skiing champion, who was into sand skiing. I wanted to bring the sport to Saudi Arabia and help it grow."

While working with May, Abdi said he was approached by Neom, the new Saudi Arabian city where snowfall is abundant in winter, to test skiing conditions before the construction of a ski centre. "I could never imagine I would be able to ski in Saudi Arabia,” Abdi said.

Fayik Abdi trains in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Reuters

Later, Abdi was contacted by the kingdom's Winter Sports Association.

“In March 2021 I went to Riyadh," he said. "I met the federation vice chairman and chief executive, they spoke about the Olympics which was in just 11 months. I don’t think they knew how hard it was going to be but they were ambitious and I respect the fact that they just went for it.”

With coach Jeff Books, owner of the International Racers ski team, Abdi has travelled to Austria, Sweden, Italy and Montenegro to prepare for the games.

Abdi said there is a lot of potential for skiing in Saudi, and hopes his participation in the games will spark more interest among his countrymen.

“There are going to be indoor skiing facilities in Riyadh and Jeddah," he said. "One of the upcoming skiing centres in Riyadh is going to be the second-biggest in the world. So hopefully this will open the door for Saudis to participate in winter sports.”

Abdi aims to make a difference in the world of skiing and to encourage young Saudis by developing the sport.

“The pinnacle of ski racing is the World Cup," he said. "I want to be able to finish in a good spot. When my competing career is over my goal is to breed young Saudis in the World Cup. We have the resources in Saudi Arabia to develop top ski racers.”

Abdi said the country has been extremely supportive in providing the platform and training. “My parents are super proud and we are grateful to be able to represent our country and the GCC for the first time in the Olympics," he said. "I hope I am able to be a good representative for my country and the GCC.”

Updated: February 03, 2022, 2:06 PM