New Zealand

Tiny Middle Eastern country competes in winter games for first time

It is the 21st century equivalent of Cool Runnings and a movie – or, at least, documentary – will surely follow.

This week athletes from the United Arab Emirates debuted in the Winter Games at Cardrona near Wānaka.

The tiny Middle Eastern country is more renowned for sand than snow as winter temperatures only get to average lows of 14C.

But that was not stopping snowboarder Amenah Almuhairi from dreaming of getting to the Winter Olympics.

The 15-year-old had been boarding for half of her life, but admitted feeling a few nerves when she first encountered the jumps of the slopestyle course – the largest of her young career.

“I was definitely nervous the week before [the competition].

“I was tackling nerves the week before and then the day of, I just went ‘Whatever goes, goes, chillax, it’s all good, now it’s down to how I’ve trained and if I believe in myself’ and I got it. I was all good.”

Snowboarder Amenah Almuhairi.

Amenah Almuhairi has been snowboarding for years.
Photo: RNZ

Almuhairi managed to complete two runs in the qualifiers and her coach, Jacco Bos, could not be prouder.

“I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve managed to do. She got comfortable on the course and put down a full run,” he said.

Like Almuhairi, fellow Emirati snowsports pioneer, skier Sultan Al Gandhi, was also dreaming of competing in the Olympics one day.

“Definitely. Hopefully we’ll reach the Olympics soon,” the 16-year-old said.

But both athletes knew there was a mountain to climb to get there as the United Arab Emirates’ heat limited training opportunities.

skier Sultan Al Gandhi.

Sultan Al Gandhi has hopes of reaching the Olympics.
Photo: RNZ

While snow had been recorded a couple of times in the country’s history, the only consistent snow that was anywhere to be found was Ski Dubai, which houses one of the largest indoor ski slopes, inside the Mall of the Emirates.

“It’s tough. At Ski Dubai it’s way different than the outside. This was my first time on a mountain, so it was a big challenge for me,” Al Gandhi said.

Freeski coach James Machon competed at the 2014 Winter Olympics for Great Britain, so he understood what it took to reach the pinnacle of the sport and backed his young team.

“I think it’s achievable. There’s definitely a lot of challenges ahead, but we tackle the challenges one-by-one and one step at a time, and hopefully that will get us there.”

He also could not help but see the parallels between the Emirati athletes and the Jamaicans featured in Cool Runnings.

The 1988 Winter Olympics Jamaican bobsled team was immortalised in the 1993 movie featuring comedy legend John Candy.

“It’s pretty much the same story. As we go along to these events, we hope to gain more media coverage and more of a story so you never know, maybe they’ll be in a Netflix documentary,” Machon said, laughing.

But for the young athletes, there was a more pressing concern – just enjoying themselves and the experience.

“Oh, it’s so much fun. I love New Zealand. It’s definitely a place to come back to,” Almuhairi said.

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