Olympics Winter

Ethiopian cross-country skier laying down tracks

Ethiopia's distance runners are world renowned, but given the East African country's climate and negligible snowfall, its winter sport athletes are scarce, to say the least. But cross-country skier Robel Teklemariam is doing everything in his power to change that.

Ethiopia's distance runners are world renowned, but given the East African country's climate and negligible snowfall, its winter sport athletes are scarce, to say the least.

One man is doing everything in his power to change that.

Cross-country skier Robel Teklemariam is Ethiopia's only winter Olympian. He will be competing at the Vancouver Games in the men's 15-kilometre race on Feb. 15, aiming to improve upon his 84th-place finish at the Torino Olympics four years ago.

The 35-year-old has a much bigger objective: to set the stage for other Ethiopians to follow in his tracks.

"After Turin, I met a lot of Ethiopian skiers, but so far, none of them are racers," says Teklemariam. "They just go out and enjoy skiing or snowboarding.

"There are over one million Ethiopians living overseas, all over Scandinavia, all over Canada and the United States. I am pretty sure there will be some young kid who will want to race eventually, and that really is my goal at the end of the day."

Teklemariam left Ethiopia with his parents and five siblings in 1983 when he was just nine years old. At the time, his mother worked for the United Nations and asked for a transfer to UN headquarters in New York in order to give her children the opportunity for a Western education.

Learning to ski

The young Teklemariam spoke no English, but when he enjoyed a summer camp experience in Lake Placid, N.Y., his mother enrolled him in boarding school there. It was there that he learned to ski.

"I went to a race, and one of the guys asked my coach where I was from," Teklemariam recalled. "I had no idea who he was, but he said as a joke, 'You should represent Ethiopia one day at the Olympics.' I heard him, but I never took it seriously, but it was always there in my mind."

While at school, he saw a television documentary on legendary Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila, who won the 26.2-mile event at the 1960 Olympics running in bare feet. Teklemariam, who has always spoken Amharic and retains an Ethiopian passport, said he felt an enormous attachment to his homeland. Inspired, he focused on his own Olympic dream.

Teklemariam progressed rapidly in his sport and was awarded an athletic scholarship to the University of New Hampshire for cross-country skiing. He hoped to compete in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, but the opportunity for an education superseded his athletic aspirations, so he put his Olympic dream on hold temporarily. After graduation, he soon realized there were other forces at play.

In order to be able to compete in the Olympics, Ethiopia's national Olympic committee had to endorse a ski federation, which at that time didn't exist. When Teklemariam told the Olympic officials of his plan to set one up, they were "dumbfounded at first," he said. Then they got behind his initiative.

With the support of his family, Teklemariam set about fulfilling all the criteria necessary to establish the federation — drawing up bylaws and budgets and seeking sponsorship. Today, the key positions in the organization are held by Teklemariam's family members.

Much of Teklemariam's training and travel expenses are underwritten by Club Med — the global vacation company, which also employs him as a ski instructor.

Doping scare

Preoccupied with his administrative chores for the federation, Teklemariam only qualified for the Torino Games at the 11th hour. But then he hit another obstacle as an anti-doping blood test revealed he had a higher than normal level of hemoglobin — the oxygen-carrying blood protein — and he was ordered to rest for seven days.

Though elevated hemoglobin is not proof of doping, there are always suspicions surrounding such cases. Teklemariam, who claimed the elevated hemoglobin levels were likely the result of living at a high altitude, was allowed to compete eventually.

"The capital of Ethiopia is at an altitude of 3,000 metres [above sea level]," Teklemariam explains. "All my ancestors come from there. Where I train in Aspen, Colo., I trained at an altitude of around 3,000 metres. All my training was done at altitude. The race in Turin was at 1,600 metres altitude. I had no clue about this hemoglobin. I didn't care. I know I am not doing anything wrong.

"The World Anti Doping Agency [WADA] did tests, and it was all negative. I talked to the International Ski Federation [FIS]. I said, 'Listen, I am Ethiopian. I come from high altitude.' The problem is the standard is set on European levels not on Africans' [levels]."

These days, Teklemariam splits his time between various European venues; Aspen, where he is a licensed alpine ski instructor; and his home in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Because of the lack of snow in his home country, he cycles and runs in the mountains outside the capital. Roller skiing is impossible because of the heavy traffic and hilly terrain. He also spends time in a local gymnasium, where he has run into some of the country's best distance runners, including three-time Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele.

'I don't want it to end with me'

Preparations for the 2010 Olympics have not gone as smoothly as Teklemariam would have liked.

When a number of ski competitions this season were cancelled because of a lack of snow, he found himself traveling back and forth across Europe searching for official FIS races in order to qualify for Vancouver. That forced him to cancel a series of planned competitions in Japan.

From now until he leaves for Vancouver, he is based in Marbach, Switzerland.

Teklemariam travels, for the most part, on his own, dragging his equipment bag from train to car to train. On Jan. 8, for example, he took a 15-hour train ride to Oberwiesenthal, Germany, and raced the next day. Then it was on to Innsbruck, Austria, about 600 kilometres away.

"I am really exhausted, but my fitness is OK," he said. "Really, my goal for Vancouver is to improve my time behind the winner and have a better race than in Turin. As far as results, I really want Ethiopia to be a mainstay in winter sports. I don't want be the first and last Ethiopian at the Winter Olympics. I don't want it to end with me."

Though he retains a great deal of optimism, most of his countrymen — those who are aware of him, that is — remain bemused by his pursuit. Nonetheless, he hopes they will watch him on television later this month.

Teklemariam said he was encouraged by a recent encounter with one of Ethiopia's greatest distance runners, Haile Gebrselassie, a two-time Olympic champion in the 10,000 metre and the current world marathon record holder.

"I was flying to Japan and met him on the airplane," Teklemariam recalls. "I went up to him and said, 'My God, you are a legend. I am pleased to meet you. I have also been to the Olympic Games.' He said, 'For what sport?' I said, 'Skiing,' and he said, 'I remember you going to Italy with the skiing. Some day, bring us back the gold'."